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Married to a Highland Brute (Preview)

Prologue

Jonan McKay gently stroked his wife’s head. It must have been a sight to see his large, warriorlike hands caress his only love’s soft and pale skin.

“I need water,” Magda requested in a weak voice.

Magda’s eyes couldn’t stand the light, so the room was dark. The sheets were coarse, and Jonan expected her to complain about how itchy they were. But she couldn’t anymore because she was too weak.

Gently, he reached for the cup on the nightstand. The illness was rapidly eating her away. Just a few weeks ago, she was able to lift her head and guide the cup to her lips. Now, Jonan was watching her strain to take a sip.

Jonan knew he had to put on a brave face. Magda needed him to be strong, and he couldn’t disappoint her. So he remained so on the outside… But inside, the pain overwhelmed him, especially when he was alone.

He assisted her in bringing the tumbler to her dry lips and holding it there for a few moments. “Ye didnae have a drink?” he questioned worriedly. He lifted the cup again, until he realized she was too weak.

He rang for the surgeon staying in the keep. Jonan watched the man examine her, waiting impatiently.
“Well?” he asked as soon as she was done. “Why does she nae drink?”

“The illness weakens her every day, milaird,” he replied.

“What can be done?” Jonan said, pulling him aside.

He was plagued by fear. He didn’t want to be told that there was nothing he could do. He was unable to keep his hands still. He needed to do something, anything, to help his wife.

“I will give her some water with a spoon, but ye must ken that her time draws near.”

Jonan stood there watching the surgeon leave, but he didn’t move. He’d fought and won many battles in his life. But now I am locked in a battle with death itself, he thought. He had watched his wife fade away like a beautiful flower in the cold, dry weather, her petals fading away day by day.

The illness had struck without warning. Jonan remembered her so cheerful, welcoming, and biddable. She had carried out her responsibilities to the clan and her family with love and strength. He had relied on her wisdom to keep the castle running while he protected their clan. And it had worked flawlessly until one morning not long ago.

Magda had complained of a headache while working in his office late in the afternoon. He was immediately concerned because she rarely felt poorly. She was strong enough to hold his hand tightly at noon; by dinner, she couldn’t.

Everything had gone downhill from there. Magda’s condition worsened by the day. Jonan felt like a bystander in his own life. He knew how to be a powerful soldier, claiming lands and driving his enemies away. He was the powerful and feared McKay clan’s leader — not the type of man to sit back and watch as everything he cared about was taken away from him.

Weak. Powerless.

As Magda grew weaker and weaker, the words haunted him day and night. He had contacted every apothecary, physician, and shaman in the surrounding towns. What had he not offered to anyone who could help his wife? What hadn’t he tried? Even so, his efforts were futile.

Grief rushed through him with such force that it was difficult to see past it. He had promised to protect Magda when he married her. He had promised to keep her pain-free, and he had faith in his ability to do so. But as he witnessed her in agony, he realized he had failed.

Jonan returned to her side and refused to leave, but the days that followed made no difference. She did not improve.
Magda coughed one cold afternoon as Jonan sat by her bed. He had been watching her chest rise and fall for comfort, and her cough startled him, snatching him away from his thoughts.

“Are ye in pain?” he asked.

Magda opened her eyes and smiled laboriously.

“Magda?”

“Ye will see to Leah, will ye nae?”

“Ye ken I will, Magda, but ye must nae leave yet.”

“We daenae have control of these things, Jonan.” She reached for his hands, and as firmly as she could, she squeezed.

When she let go, her hand slowly searched beneath her pillow for a small portrait.

Jonan took the miniature from her with trembling hands. It had been commissioned almost a year before. He recalled how long she had spent preparing for her portrait to be painted.

They had been so happy, once upon a time.

“I’ll keep this safe,” he promised her and placed the image in his breeches.

“I know you will,” she smiled.

The smile remained on her face, even as she took her final breath.

A fading smile that would haunt Jonan for years to come.

 

Chapter one

Even before she turned around, Nora Turner knew that Henry would be behind her. She gripped the basket filled with food and refused to move an inch.

“Well, well! Lady Nora, I presume. Your father will be none too pleased about this, I think.”

“Well,” she said, spinning around, “while you tattle along to tell my father, do remember that your silly threats do not scare me.”

The short, bald butler fumed and glared at her, but Nora retained her look of confidence until he had marched out of the pantry.

“Probably on his way to tell Father,” she sighed to herself. Her whispers drifted to Amelia, who was walking past.

“Who’s on his way to tell Father what?”

Nora heard Amelia’s question before she saw her. She bit her lower lip before remembering that it would irritate her darling twin sister; she would panic once she entered the pantry.

“Nora, what did you…” Amelia’s voice trailed off as she reached her. Amelia was dressed in a simple day frock, much like her sister’s. Both dresses were adorned with simple lace edges, and much to their father’s anger, both were the same shade of pink.

It annoyed Lord Turner to no end that his daughters continued to dress in the same colors, as he could never tell them apart.

They looked so much alike; both had large ginger curls and big, green eyes. When they were born, the midwives had tied a pink ribbon around Amelia’s wrist and a blue one to Nora’s. If not for the ribbons, no one could distinguish them.

Nora offered a small smile. “Father won’t be that cross,” she said in an attempt to make her sister smile, but she wasn’t successful.

“Oh, Nora,” Amelia sighed before rushing to cover over the large picnic basket. “You know it’s too much of a risk to sneak food out in the daytime. And this is full to the brim!”

Nora sighed and they began to restock the pantry shelves together, knowing it would be foolish to continue her mission. “Naomi and Nathan are really struggling, Amy,” she whined.

Naomi and Nora had met years ago. She was a middle-aged widow with no other family except her son — she did everything she could, but times were tough and food was scarce.

“I’m aware, but you know we must avoid rousing Father’s anger. I fear he will hit you and—”

“Oh, Amy! You mustn’t worry so. Father has not hit us since we were three-and-ten.”

“You say that like it was long ago.”

“Seven years is an age for some.”

“Not to me,” Amelia said with a shiver. “He terrified me.”

“I know… and you were always well-behaved.” Nora handed her sister a loaf of bread. There was a slight smile on her face.

“And even when I was not, you took my whoopings as often as I would let you, and even—”

“And even sometimes when you would not,” Nora laughed and finished her sister’s sentence. “Oh, those times seem like ages ago.”

Once they were finally done putting the food away, both sisters exchanged fond looks.

“You were always a mother hen.”

“Well, I am older,” Nora said as Amelia slipped her hand into hers.

“By a minute only, Nora,” she said, but there was a smile on her face. “Come,” she said. “Father will, no doubt, send for you soon.”

“Oh, I’m not afraid of him.”

“That is what I fear. I wish Henry would have mistaken you for me, but he’s too eagle-eyed for his own good.”

Both sisters walked out of the pantry, arm in arm, and headed for their shared bedroom on the eastern wing of their father’s manor.

Their father, Lord Baldwin Turner, an English Aristocrat who had served in His Majesty’s court, was assigned to Scotland by the King a year ago.

Nora recalled being worried about relocating there. However, when they arrived in Brinsdale, she discovered that she had not needed to be concerned at all. Scotland was beautiful and her father had acquired a large mansion south of town surrounded by trees that were home to beautiful birds.

Those same birds sang again as the sisters entered their bedroom, awaiting their father’s call. It only took a few minutes for a loud knock to sound on the door.

“You may enter,” Nora called in a voice full of false bravery.

With a snide expression on his face, Henry opened the door but his confidence wavered as he looked between the two women. “Your father summons you.”

“Thank you, Henry. You may take your leave,” Amelia said with a jutted chin.

Nora was pleased by her sister’s gesture. Amelia’s anger, even toward Henry whom she couldn’t stand either, was limited to a raised chin, and even that was rare. When he left, Nora stood to leave, but Amelia turned to her with pleading eyes and grabbed her hands.

“Oh, please, let me go in your stead! Darling Nora, please! I will calm Father down. You will only anger him further.”

“And that will probably reveal our deceit,” Nora said with a grin.

“Oh, do be serious, Nora! Please, let me—”

“Amelia, I could never let you face Father’s wrath. You know I couldn’t, not even if you were to blame. I certainly will not since I am at fault.”

“But you so often take the fall for me…”

“You hardly get into trouble, dearest.”

“But—”

“Amelia,” Nora said softly but firmly, “No. I will go myself.”

With a brave face and a beating heart, Nora strode out of the room.

Lord Turner’s study was located on the western wing’s far edge. The girls had suspected that the office was strategically placed because their father preferred to be as far away from his daughters as possible. It had been the same in their home in England.

Nora despised it; she hated having to march across half the house, terrified of what her father would do. During the walk, she would frequently try to distract herself like forcing herself to consider all the different ways she could braid Amelia’s hair or picturing rocking a sleeping child, as she had often done when bringing food to some of the local women’s babies.

The soothing thoughts never lasted long, and she was soon back to thinking about her father. She knocked twice on his office’s large door, just as he had instructed.

“Nora.” His voice was deep and heavy with a cold undertone.

She took a deep breath before grasping the large brass handle and opening the door.

Lord Turner sat at the head of the room, behind his large desk. He was wearing reading glasses and ruminating over two large piles of documents on either side of his table.

Nora took her time walking to his table, counting each step until she was standing across from him.

“Father.”

There was no response. Nora sat at his table, silently watching him read. He finished working on a document he had selected from the right pile, and placed it on another to his left. He repeated that for quite some time. After what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his gaze to hers.

“When I speak to you, do you hear the words I say?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Do you understand them?”

“Yes, Father.”

“And yet, you never obey them. Why is that, Nora?”

Nora remained silent.

“Has the cat got your tongue?”

When Nora refused to speak again, Lord Turner slammed his fists on the table. She stood firm, which aggravated her father even more. She hated being afraid, but it was her father’s favorite game.

Nora and Amelia were not exempt from his bullying because they were his daughters. On the contrary, they got the worst of it. It didn’t surprise her for he hated them both, she knew. She had realized it early on, but it had taken her some time to figure out why.

Nora had suspected her father disliked her since she was a child. She had initially assumed it was because she made messes around the house and frequently got into trouble, but that notion had quickly faded. After all, Amelia was as good as gold, and he was equally horrible to her.

“You and your sister bring a lot of grief to me. It is all you have ever done. You took your mother at birth, and you will not rest until you take me too.”

His words sliced through Nora like a knife, but she remained silent and unmoving; her face blank.

“Stop giving out food that you do not pay for. I should punish you, but I haven’t the time for that today. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Nora, you should know your place. I’m a busy man, and I don’t understand why you have to be watched like a child all day.”

Nora continued to remain silent, blinking back tears.

“I’m hoping to hear nothing else from Henry. You are more trouble than you are worth, and I am considering marrying you off. You may leave now.”

Nora walked out of the room, her face expressionless. The tears pricked her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall… Not until she was reunited with Amelia. She knew her sister would know what had happened just by looking at her.

“Oh, Nora, what did he say to you?” her sister said as she entered the room.

Nora closed the door behind her and tried to keep a straight face.

“He said nothing, Amelia,” she lied, but couldn’t keep the truth from her sister. Nora dashed over, allowing Amelia to tightly hug her.

She tried her hardest not to cry, but it was too difficult. Her father’s words cut her deeply.

“Do you think our mother would have loved us?” she asked.

Amelia pulled away from the hug. “I know for certain, Nora. She would have loved us.”

Nora smiled, the pain in her heart beginning to ease. The sisters sat on the bed next to each other.

“What do you think she looked like?” she said after she had calmed down a little. “I know she had red hair, just like ours.”

“Perhaps she would have been tall like us.” Amelia grinned.

“I’ll never forgive father for burning all of her paintings. I would have loved to have seen her…” Nora’s heart was overflowing with longing for her mother. It was a terrible feeling to miss someone you’d never met.

“Oh, Nora. Don’t be sad! We have each other.”

“Yes.” Nora’s smile was genuine. “We do.”

“Do you fancy a walk? We could collect some flowers.”

“It is such a lovely day, is it not?” Nora forced a smile. “I’ll take my parasol, and we can be off in a jiffy.”

The sisters shared another warm embrace, comforted once more by each other.
Nora was relieved to hear that their father had sent Henry out for the afternoon. It was the ideal opportunity for her to try her ruse once more. Naomi’s little boy would go hungry for the third night in a row if she didn’t sneak some food out.

With guilt in her heart, she crept into the pantry. She didn’t like keeping things from her sister, but she knew Amelia would have followed her. She couldn’t let her put herself in such risk.

She decided not to bring the picnic basket this time. Instead, she slipped some bread and cheese into a small cloth bag and hid it with her shawl.

She sneaked out of the house and into the woods, following the small path that circled the estate until she arrived at a small cottage at the end of one of the lanes. It was mostly hidden by the forest.

Nora’s heart had sunk when Naomi showed her where she lived with her son. Since then, she’d done everything she could to alleviate their suffering.

She imagined what it would be like to live so close to the woods, not liking the eerie feeling she got when she walked or rode alone out there. But her desire to assist Naomi outweighed her fear. Arriving at the cottage, she notice the thatch roof leaking in several places.

She knocked twice before the door was flung open.

“Naomi, it’s me.” And the woman’s eyes lit up.

“Ach, milady! Ye made it. Come in, come in!”

“Thank you, Naomi. How does Nathan fare?”

Nora was led into the small house which was slightly smaller than her bedchamber. Removing the shawl, she handed Naomi the bag.

“Very poorly, milady.” the woman said sadly.

Nathan lay in the corner on a straw bed.

“Oh, Nathan! You do look poorly,” Nora said in a comforting voice, stroking his hair.

“‘Tis jolly good to see ye, milady,” the boy replied weakly. “Ma said ye were nae sure to come, but I told her ye were.” He offered her a small smile.

Nora’s heart clenched as she looked at Naomi, glad she eventually took the risk and paid them a visit. “I must leave shortly,” she told them both, “but I will be back. Farewell, Nathan. How I worry so…”

“Ye daenae have to worry about Ma, at least,” Nathan said, despite the weakness in his voice. “I can take care of Ma.”

Nora laughed despite how sad she felt. “I’m sure you can, Nathan. That’s why we need you to be strong again.”
The boy nodded slowly before closing his eyes.

Nora shifted her gaze to Naomi. “What medicine does he take?”

The woman turned away. “We cannot afford medicine, milady.”

Nora walked to the door, deep in thought.

“Milady, do ye need a hand finding yer way back?”

Nora’s eyes snapped up. “I’ve got it,” she replied, then sighed. “Do you remember the short path through the woods that you showed me? From the farmers’ market?”

“Aye,” Naomi nodded, opening the door.

“Well, someplace along there, I noticed a white willow tree. You must find it and scrape off some of its bark. Boil it down and make it into a tea for him. It might help some. Now, I really must be off.”

And with that, she was gone.

***

Nora hurriedly made her way home. Her father’s estate was larger than any of the surrounding residences. The main gates opened onto a large plot of land that housed his horses, servants, and a few other structures.

Unlike their home in England, the manor had a garden that Nora adored; enclosed by a small fence and gate leading into the woods. She sneaked in and out of the manor from here.

Nora closed the wooden gate quietly behind her. She dashed through the garden and into the house and quickly peered down the corridors. There was no sign of Henry so taking a deep breath, she set out to find Amelia.

“Lady Nora… Lady Amelia?” a voice asked from behind. Nora turned back to Henry whose face held a menacing grin. “Your father summons you and your sister to his study immediately.”

 

Chapter two

It was nearly noon when Jonan McKay awoke from his slumber that day. He rolled out of bed and onto the floor, unable to get back up.

He had no desire to do anything. It had been like this for years, ever since his wife died. The days passed slowly, and the nights even more so. Everything in the world seemed to be at odds with him, as if he were trapped in an endless cycle of torture.

Jonan laboriously drew himself up until he was leaning against his bed. He reached for the bottle of rum he’d left on his dresser the night before. On most days, he drew himself out of his rest and avoided hitting the bottle until noon. That was not the case today.

For he had a dream that took him back in time.

He cracked open the rum and let the hot liquid burn a path down his throat. He grimaced at the bitter taste of the alcohol but took another sip, throwing it away once it was empty. He then leaned against his bed and closed his eyes.

It was just another day.

I have nae luck, he thought as he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Beyond the chandelier was simple darkness, and it reminded him of the void that was now in his heart.

“Milaird,” he heard a knock on the door. Jonan closed his eyes again, not in the mood for visitors. For a long time, he had not been in the mood to see anyone.

His duty as a laird to his clan meant that he couldn’t stay alone for long. His heart was bitter. For months, he had considered leaving the clan and moving somewhere far away, where no one would find or know of him; somewhere where he would not be constantly reminded of his grief… but he couldn’t. He had promised Magda that he would look after Leah and, by the Gods, he would.

Shame engulfed him — he used to be powerful and strong, someone who would never evade his duties.

Who have I become? he thought to himself.

The knock came again. “Laird McKay,” the familiar voice came again. “I ken that ye are awake, milaird.”

Aye, I am awake. I just wish for nae guests. Jonan kept quiet even though he knew he could not hide forever.

Callan, his most trusted ally, was standing outside the door. Still, Jonan lay motionless on the floor.

“Father!” Jonan’s eyes flew open as he heard the gentle voice of his daughter, Leah.

Leah is here. Jonan got off the floor quickly and grabbed a shirt from his drawer, wanting to look presentable.

“Laird McKay.” Callan repeated.

With a groan, Jonan pushed open the door.

“A wonderful mornin’ to ye, Leah. How was yer night?” he asked. She sat with her arms folded across her chest, as if she had been forced to come. It appears that his daughter, though young, held a grudge against him; feeling the burden of his neglected to her and his clan. No matter how hard Jonan tried to mend the growing rift between him and his daughter, he always ran into a painful brick wall.

Leah was only four years old, but she looked exactly like her mother, and he was deeply saddened every time he saw her. Everyone in the keep could see Jonan’s growing absence from the girl’s life, but he couldn’t deny his sorrows for they overwhelmed him.

He extended his long arms and smiled. wanting her to love him, she was his only remaining family after all—his own flesh and blood.

Leah, however, remained motionless. Callan nudged the girl forward, and finding herself near her father, she reluctantly walked into his waiting arms.

Jonan tightly hugged her before abruptly lifting her off the floor. Leah screamed with delight, making him smile for the first time in weeks as a bright grin spread across her face.

She is innocent and has nothing to do with her mother’s death, he tried to remind himself as he danced with his daughter.

“She never laughs this hard when she plays with the other children, milaird,” Callan said. Guilt prickled his conscience, but he did not comment.

Magda had been gone only a short while, but he was already failing her—just like he had failed to keep her alive.
“She should play more with children her age,” Jonan said before putting Leah back down. The young girl’s eyes welled up with tears but he couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes again. So he turned away as Callan approached to collect her.

“For ye, milaird,” Callan said, tending Jonan a note.

He looked down on it, then sighed. “I shall see ye before the day ends,” Jonan said to Leah. Dismayed, she nodded and sniffed back her tears as she was led out of the room.

Just smile at me, and tell me all is alright and forgiven, the Laird wished as he watched his daughter walk away from him.

The door remained open in their wake. Soon after, two maids entered the room, carrying buckets on their arms. They greeted him appropriately, then went into the washroom, where they poured steaming, hot water into the tub.

“Yer bath is prepared, milaird,” the women said.

“Thank ye,” Jonan bid the two women as they hurried out the room, hiding their grins and whispering.

Jonan did not call them back to find out what they were gossiping about. He already knew. There was no more popular topic than the laird, who rarely left his chamber.

He sat on the bed, unfolding the note. Callan had tried to remind him that the clan elders had called a meeting with him that morning. He had intended to avoid it entirely, but after seeing Leah, he felt eager to do something worthwhile with his day.

A bath first, Jonan decided, taking off his shirt. A brief giggle alerted the Laird to the presence of peepers. He knew it had to be the maids.

He coughed loudly enough for the ladies to hear. Their quick feet hurried out of the chamber, across the corridor, and to the stairwell.

He held no grudges against the young women who wanted to see him naked. Years ago, his pride might have reveled in the attention, but now… now he was a different man, and he desired to be alone.

They are naïve to like a man such as meself, Jonan thought, downcast before he dipped into the bath.
It wasn’t his first time dealing with nosy maids. He was a widower, so many women fancied him or aspired to be the clan’s new lady.

Jonan quickly washed himself and exited the washroom. He looked through the looking glass, which hung just outside the door.

He looked like the tall and burly man he had always been with broad shoulders like his father and black curls like his mother. He was a strong man; his body was toned and muscled—he was, after all, a seasoned warrior.

But deep inside, he felt weak.

Perhaps this is who I really was all along. Perhaps I played the strong laird for too long. If I didnae, why can I nae remember what it feels like to lead, to be in control?

Jonan brushed aside his thoughts, and dressed in a loose shirt and breeches. He slipped on his boots and walked down the spiral stairs that led to the main dining hall.

It was a large room, big enough to host a clan ball. He recalled running through the hall as a wee lad, disobeying his parents and getting into trouble.

Breakfast had been served. The Laird sat down but the meal in front of him did not pique his appetite. He did, however, force himself to eat, not wanting to waste valuable food, even if it brought him no satisfaction.

After a while, Callan entered and joined Jonan at the table. “Milaird, ye daenae seem to be in the best of moods.”
Jonan grunted.

“The clansmen are just concerned. They need yer reassurance.”

Jonan took a sip from a tumbler of water. He didn’t have the courage to tell his friend that he couldn’t offer any reassurance.

“I dinnae ken if I wish to go.”

“You are the Laird McKay, and yer people have barely seen ye since the Lady McKay passed,” Callan pointed out. “There are rumors amongst the clan members that ye dinnae care for them anymore,” he continued.

“I care for me people. I am only in mourning. A man may grieve loss, may he nae? ” Jonan replied bitterly.

“Ye need to go out into the clan, Laird McKay,” Callan continued.

Jonan was well aware of Callan’s intentions. The man would gently pester him; never demanding, always implying. But he was unwavering in his support. Jonan knew that the commander would not rest until he attended the meeting.

“I will go,” he said at last.

***

Jonan felt uneasy while riding through McKay village. Everyone stared at him as he walked past them in silence. He could see in their eyes that they remembered his loss the moment they saw him, and their sympathy for his plight was too much for him to bear.

Overcoming his discomfort, he waved and smiled at the clansmen. They all bowed to him and waved the clan’s flag as he rode through.

The children were more palatable, with less concern for his loss and demeanor. There was no sadness for them to feel, only joy and fun.

Jonan left his stead in front of the town hall in the square. He could already hear conversation inside the building, as the council had begun without him. Nonetheless, he entered.

When he pushed open the front doors, the large meeting room fell silent. After a while, they all rose to greet him.

Jonan counted the people in the room and realized he was the odd one out. Callan had prepared for him the vacant seat at the head of the table. The Laird McKay walked over to his seat, ignoring the men around him who were trying to conceal their surprise at his presence.

“Ye may sit,” Jonan stated. “Why have I been summoned?” he asked then, getting straight to the point.

The men at the table exchanged glances before one of them spoke up. The council’s eldest member — a fifty-year-old clansman who had seen three lairds in his lifetime.

“It is a pleasant sight for the clan to have ye bless our invitation. The people of the clan felt hope this day as ye rode amongst them,” Aodh started.

“I apologize for my absence,” Jonan replied. “I have been occupied with other, pressing matters.”

“While ye were absent, Laird McKay, the English have gained ground on our people. The Scots are terrified,” the man continued.

“We are strong and proud Scotsmen who would lay down our lives for the freedom of our country, but we are weak in numbers,” another man said.

“We have been forced to find allies in clans we once lorded over,” Aodh announced.

“We must not forget that when the rains destroyed our harvest last year, the clan was forced to loan from the Ta’Mas.

‘Tis due to be repaid,” another man added on.

All eyes were on Jonan. He sat in silence, unsure what to do.

The Ta’Ma’s were a wealthy group of Barbarians. They charged exorbitant interest rates and would not accept late payments. They were known to burn entire clans’ villages down after taking everything valuable to repay their debt.

They murdered children and men and frequently raped women.

The McKay clan had a formidable army, but it would never be able to withstand the Ta’Mas’ wrath.

“The clan is failing, milaird. The farmers are sick with the flu, and they cannot work.” Aodh continued. “‘Tis crucial that the planting begins immediately. There is no more time to waste. Even while we contend with this, we are ever threatened by the English.”

Jonan remained silent. He knew the words spoken were true. Despite having spent the majority of the previous few months in his keep, he was aware of rumors of English soldiers on their lands. The council’s solution appeared simple enough, but he knew how difficult it would be to secure allies with civil wars raging across the country. Scotland was sick of conflicts.

All of the men sat quietly at the table, waiting for him to provide a solution. As clan chief, it was his responsibility to protect them.

“We shall bide our time and wait before sending the council in search of allies. The war is still far from our lands.” Jonan pronounced. The members of the council were shocked at the laird’s words. He knew that they thought his approach was too passive.

“But we must be hasty in our actions to protect the clan lands from the English,” Aodh argued, speaking the minds of all those at the table.

The old man’s words fell on deaf ears. Jonan got to his feet, startling them.

“Our clan does nae cower and seek out allies,” Jonan stated firmly. His voice was so loud and mighty that none of the men dared to speak until the echo of his voice faded away.

“We ken about the past wars between our clan and the others. We were strong in those days, and we made all our enemies bow to us… but the English are upon us now,” Callan spoke gently.

“I think ‘tis high time that we speak clearly,” Aodh said, standing. “Ye are the Laird and ‘tis yer duty to care for yer clansmen. The clan suffers and weakens as each day passes, yet naught is done.”

Under Aodh’s piercing gaze, Jonan remained silent. The men of the council kept quiet too, not supporting Aodh but also not disagreeing with him. A rather terrible sign for Jonan.

“Ye must do something, Laird Jonan McKay, and prove that ye can still rule this clan.”

“Enough!” Callan said, standing up and facing Aodh. “I respect yer gray hairs, but I will nae listen to ye disrespect the Laird.”

“I have given my final word, Aodh, to ye and every member of this clan. We will seek no more allies.” Jonan’s words were firm, but his confidence shook, and he might have remained silent had it not been for Callan’s bold words. “I remain Laird of this clan. If any man wishes to challenge me, let him pick up a sword. I have nae forgotten how to wield a blade.” He rose to his feet, noting Callan’s relief in his response. “I am Laird Jonan McKay and the McKay clan yields to none. That is my final word.”

With those words, he marched out of the meeting and rode back to the keep.

Once there, he allowed himself to collapse on his bed as evening fell — alone in solitude. The way the bed accepted the burden of his worry was almost blissful.

“But life is nae meant to be so.”

He sighed deeply. He reached into his pocket, searching for the portrait of his beloved Magda. He realized that he couldn’t take it out as he usually did. He didn’t want to. A sense of shame washed over him, knowing that, deep down, he was no longer the man his late wife had adored.

He had failed her, but wouldn’t fail his clan too.

For the first time in a long time, Jonan headed toward his study. He was on a mission to find a letter he had previously discarded.

There it was, lying in a drawer of his desk. The brown envelope was wax-sealed. The initials on the seal read L.T. As he trailed over the smooth paper with his fingers, he began to think.

He wasn’t oblivious to his people’s hardships. Their food supplies were running low, and more trespassers were showing up on their land. Their finances were failing, and he worried that the clan would be marched upon.

Jonan understood that it was solely his responsibility and duty to keep his people safe. The clan required more money, allies, and food. If his people were not conquered, they would almost certainly starve.

He grimaced as he opened the envelope and removed the neatly folded letter. Unfolding it, he reached for his quill.

I accept.

He rummaged through the drawer for the McKay signet ring. He sighed and dipped it into ink before slamming it against the paper, echoing finality. Then he went in search of a messenger boy to send the letter on its way.

As Jonan watched the messenger ride away, a strange dread swirled in his stomach. He retired to his chambers and drank himself to sleep.

 


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The Secret of a Highland Rebel (Preview)

Chapter one

The first night of the new moon phase was particularly dark, but that didn’t stop anyone from going about their business, especially the two men stumbling through the darkness. Keenan MacNeish had a puzzled expression on his face. His Laird, John Murray of clan Athol, leaned against him, one arm slung over his neck, holding up the lantern, their only source of light in the absolute blackness.

The two men wore cloaks over their heads, and the light from their lantern cast shadows over their faces, making them unrecognizable. Keenan was leading the way, but only because he was the only one who was thinking clearly. He was still essentially doing what he was told. He sighed as he dragged his drunken Laird toward the pub, his breath letting out steam in the cold air atop the hill.

“Me Laird… Are ye certain ye want to visit the pub? Nae only have ye missed dinner and should be back at the castle by now, but I am sure this pub owner does nae want ye back after last time,” Keenan said. Sweat dripped from his brow, and he wished he had a free hand to wipe it away. He sighed, exhausted. He’d dragged Laird Murray all the way up here from the bottom of the hill, as he was stumbling and couldn’t stay on track by himself. If Keenan left him alone, he would fall down the slope due to his lack of balance. For a brief moment, the thought of the Laird falling from the hill seemed too pleasant. He shook his head to clear his mind of the image.

“Why dae ye question me, Keenan? I want to go to that pub because they have the best ale!” John Murray said, slurring his words.

“Aye, but ye have been drinkin’ at other pubs all night. Ye seemed quite satisfied with those until a moment ago…” Keenan murmured. John gave him a look, narrowing his eyes like he had been offended.

“Are ye… are ye givin’ me attitude, Keenan? I ken me ale and what I like best. Yer only job is to make sure that I get it. Ye always dae as I say, since when dae ye talk back to me?” John asked threateningly. Keenan, on the other hand, saw him as threatening as a whiny, petulant child. He hadn’t been scared by the Laird in a long time.

Regardless, John was correct. Keenan usually let the Laird do whatever he wanted, especially recently. It served him well when the Laird, who couldn’t go a day without seeing the bottom of a barrel, made a fool of himself. Still, he was irritated by John’s antics tonight, because he was already drunk enough for his own purposes. So the strain of dragging him to the pub was entirely unnecessary. He was a large man — in fact, he was a large warrior, or was until he succumbed to the temptations of alcohol. The point was that he was quite heavy.

It also did not help that Keenan already had plans for them both that evening. Well, there is still some time before the gathering. I am sure we can make this quick. Keenan only let go of John when they got to the top of the hill and were in a safe place for him to stumble around. The Laird floundered to the pub’s door and banged on it.

Keenan stood back, his eyes hooded, watching the scene unfold. He could hear sounds from inside, so he knew they were open even though their doors and windows were closed. He could see light shining through the slits between the wood in the windows.

“Open up, ye old bastard!” John shouted, continuing to bang on the door like a lunatic. Keenan didn’t blame Old Newman, the pub owner, who had probably seen them coming up the hill and locked up. When John was last here, he almost set the place on fire. As the window cracked open and Old Newman poked his head out, Keenan sighed tiredly.

“What are ye lot daen’ back here?! I told ye that I never wanted to see ye here again, and ye dare to come back?! Ye are banned from this place, dae ye understand? Ye are nae allowed in!” he yelled. Keenan drew his hood up over his face a little more. It was a good thing they only ever appeared in this disguise. He wondered how Old Newman would react if he realized the man yelling at him was his Laird. John stood firm, shaking his fist at the older man.

“What dae ye mean banned?! Ye should be happy I even want to drink at this dump. Ye think ye are the only one with ale in this clan?” John shouted.

“Then go get yer ale elsewhere, ye wee piece of—,” When John charged at him, Old Newman quickly ducked his head back in the window. He slammed the window shut just as John’s fist made contact with it. Keenan sighed and rubbed his hands across his face. John, as expected, was not pleased.

“Ye dare… ye dare lock me out?!” he thundered. He dashed back to the door and started slamming himself against it. Keenan jumped slightly at the first impact. John was a massive man. Despite the fact that the door was locked, he shook it. He can nae be serious… Unfortunately, he was indeed very serious.

“Keenan! Come over here! Help me kick this door down! Break it down with me!” John commanded. Keenan drew his hood even tighter around his face. He was aware that this could happen, but hoped it would not. He was often forced to assist John in doing something stupid. When he was younger, it was because he couldn’t possibly disobey his Laird, but now that he was an adult, he had additional reasons.

He’d given up on his Laird ever becoming a respectable person, so he no longer tried to stop him when he misbehaved. Now John’s ridiculous behavior served a purpose for Keenan. If he could demonstrate to the people how inept their Laird had become, they would be more willing to fight against him to protect their rights and stop blindly trusting him out of loyalty.

“Aye, me Laird,” Keenan murmured, going over to join John at the door. They took a step back together and slammed their shoulders into the door on John’s count. Keenan was also a huge man, standing six feet and five inches tall. The door had no chance against them and, thus, it splintered after four rams.

“Ha! Aye! That is how it should be! Break it down!” John shouted with a childish glee. He kicked against the fractured area, urging Keenan to join him until their feet passed through. He could hear the ruckus from inside the bar.

“Ye… ye scoundrels!! Why, I ought to call the guards on ye nuisances! Ye broke me door!” Old Newman screeched as he charged at them with a broom. That was Keenan’s signal that they needed to leave. He was not going to be beaten with a broom for John’s sake. Before dragging the Laird out, he let Old Newman get a few good whacks in on his head. At the very least, the old man deserved that much; his door had been broken.

He dragged John, who was still holding his head from the beating, down the hill after him. He headed for the town square while holding the lantern above his head to increase his visibility.

“Where are we goin’ Keenan?” John asked, stumbling along. For a brief moment, he returned his gaze. The man was a complete mess. But then again, it was difficult to recall a time when John was a man worthy of his respect and loyalty.

He lied, saying, “Nowhere, we are just running.” When they arrived at the square, it was already crowded, with people huddled in the center around one man standing on a wooden crate and reading a letter aloud. Phew, I am a little late, but it looks like we made it in time, regardless.

“What is this, Keenan?” he slurred.

“It is a meetin’ of the villagers to discuss their problems,” Keenan explained. He kept his gaze fixed on John, waiting for his reaction. Keenan had summoned him for two reasons. The first was to see if any part of him would listen to the people’s complaints, and if not, to expose his selfishness to them.

Everything hinged on John’s reaction. It would be better if he quietly listened and reflected; if he flared up and attacked the people, it would still be better because Keenan would then blend into the crowd, shine some light on him, and declare that the crazy man attacking them was their fool of a Laird. He knew the people were too scared, too loyal to do anything to defend themselves, but if they saw the man to whom they were committed being a pathetic fool, they would rise up in anger, as they should.

“It pains me heart tae watch our people struggle so when we have the potential for so much more! We could be the greatest clan in all the Highlands with the gifts our lands have been blessed with. Our people could flourish, but instead, we are wallowin’ in poverty, and why is that? The answer is simple, because those who are supposed tae lead and protect us are stuffin’ their bellies with our coin and doin’ nothin’ tae take care of us!” the man reading shouted over the din of the murmuring people.

“Who is that talkin’?” John asked again, staring up at the man on the crate. As one of the villagers approached John, who was shrouded in his cloak, Keenan remained silent.
“Ah, that is just Philip the tailor, he is nae important except that he reads better than the rest of us. He is readin’ us a letter left by Malcolm,” she explained.

“Malcolm? Who is this Malcolm?” John asked. This time, a few more people turned to glance at him in surprise. The woman who spoke for the first time gave him a shocked look.

“Good sir, where have ye been the past few months? Malcolm is a fierce outlaw! He seems tae be the only one fighting for the people these days. His words are so powerful for a common born like us, so even when we are nae able tae dae anythin’ like him, we still listen as his words give us hope and remind us that what we are goin’ through is nae normal and is nae somethin’ we should get used tae,” the woman said.

Keenan yanked on his hood, pulling it closer to his face to conceal his smile. All he had to do now was wait to see how John reacted to the news. While listening to the letter being read, he was silent for a while, as if in thought. He remained quiet until the reading was finished and Philip stepped down from the wooden crate.

Is… is he actually reflecting?

Just as Keenan was starting to wonder, John pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the crate in the center. He snatched a torch from one of the villagers and carried it with him until he was standing on the crate, the fire above his head. Everyone looked at him with surprise and curiosity, wondering who the hooded man who had abruptly hijacked the meeting was.

Oh, what was I thinkin’? Of course, he was nae reflectin’. He is goin’ to have a fit now, and make a fool of himself. Well, I suppose that still works for me.

Nothing, however, could have prepared Keenan for what John did.

“Unbelievable… Unbelievable, I say!” John shouted suddenly, making a few people jump as his large voice boomed across the square. They muttered in surprise, exchanging confused glances.

“How could ye all stand here so calmly after hearin’ words filled with such passion and fire?!” John roared, clearly displeased. Keenan froze in his tracks as he was about to dwindle into the shadows to wreak havoc. What? In disbelief, he looked at John on the podium, who had the audience spellbound.

“Did ye nae hear what was said? Did ye nae hear the injustice being done to ye all? How could a man, sworn to protect ye, be stealin’ from ye instead? Ye all are left to starve, while he fills his belly with pork and ale and languishes in mediocrity! And yet, ye stand here confused like lambs without a shepherd?” John continued. At this point, Keenan’s jaw was hanging open. Is… is the man mad? Does he nae realize he is the one being spoken against?

The people, on the other hand, had no idea that the man speaking to them and shaking them was the very man they were instigating against. They became moved as they cheered John on while he preached like a true outlaw.

“Pick up yer torches and lift yer voices, and march! March for yer rights! March for yer lands! March for yer children at home whom ye struggle to feed! Make yer voices heard because the longer ye dae nae, the longer the injustice reigns!” John kept shouting, raising his torch into the air and causing the villagers to do the same, yelling a war cry.

Keenan palmed his face, stunned and disappointed. For John, this was a new low. No, it was a low that Keenan had never imagined was possible for anyone. As he yelled, the villagers carried him off the podium onto their shoulders, prompting them to protest. They were too enraged to notice his shaky feet as they threw him to the ground and marched toward the palace gates, yelling their opposition.

“Protect our lands! Protect our rights! We will fight for what is ours!”

Keenan stood alone in the square, watching John stumbling after them at a much slower pace. He continued to chant, albeit more subduedly, as he tried to orient himself. He appeared to have been moved around too much while being carried, as he suddenly doubled over and vomited copiously on the ground. Keenan winced in disgust as he watched him groan until he collapsed onto the ground, fast asleep, right in his own vomit.

If the situation hadn’t been so bleak, Keenan might have laughed at the irony, but he couldn’t. He was too agitated. Now I’m the one who needs a drink. He sighed, looking at John.

Keenan was a man who cared deeply about his clan. He couldn’t stand by and watch them be treated unfairly and robbed simply because their Laird had lost his way in life. As he looked at John on the ground, he was overcome with conflicting emotions. He idolized John when he was a good Laird and the people were happy. That was what enraged him even more. He had seen the good times and never imagined he could be like this. He believed that the Laird had a duty to his people no matter what. That meant that even when things were bad for him, it was his responsibility to stay strong because his people relied on him.

John had failed them, and to make matters worse, he was unaware of his failures. Keenan loved his people too much to watch them be destroyed in the name of loyalty. He would see to it that they got what they deserved.

He walked away, feeling as if his life had been sucked out of him. He couldn’t just leave John there, so he went to the guard station to request that they pick him up and take him home.

 

Chapter two

When Bevin Murray awoke that morning, the sun was streaming in through the open windows. She sighed quietly and rolled over in bed, her back to the sun. She didn’t want to be awakened just yet. She had stayed up late the night before, expecting her father to return home, but he had not. She sighed to herself, tired. The morning had arrived far too quickly, and she had not gotten enough sleep.

She could not help but be upset. “I ken he did nae come home last night because he was passed out drunk somewhere,” she muttered. It was always this way, no matter how many times she begged him to stop drinking. She had watched her father slowly but steadily lose himself to the barrel over the years, until there was almost nothing left of him that she recognized. She was saddened by his condition, but she was mostly angry.

He changed after her mother died, so she understood in a way, but she was also enraged at him. Just as he had lost a wife, she had lost a mother. It wasn’t fair that he just shut down and couldn’t handle any of his responsibilities as a Laird, let alone as a father. Her tiny, pink lips drooped as she became preoccupied with his neglectful behavior.

A knock on the door of her chambers signaled the end of her ability to sleep. She pushed the covers off and sat up, running her hands through her messy brown hair, which had fallen in her face rather than being in its usual single braid. She’d been too upset the night before to care.

“Excuse me intrusion, Miss,” a voice said from behind the door and Louisa poked her head into the room. Louisa was her handmaid and best friend. They were both twenty-one years old, which could explain why they could relate to each other so easily, despite their master-servant relationship. She raised her head to look at her, and the dark-haired maid winced.

“Oh… ye dae nae look too great this mornin’ Miss. I did tell ye that ye should have allowed me tae braid yer hair last night — now look at ye, yer head resembles a bird’s nest,” Louisa said, stepping into the room and fussing over her. Bevin sighed and got out of bed, walking over to her mirror. Her brown eyes returned her stare; a dead stare with no excitement coming from the sockets, with the beginnings of black rings surrounding them. Her pale skin had turned sickly that morning, and her hair looked like it had been chased through the underbrush by foxes. She really did look terrible — like a ghost.

“I come bearing news, but I believe we should take care of ye first,” the girl said, slipping a letter onto the dressing table before hurrying off to draw Bevin’s bath. Bevin, who was changing her clothes, recognized the seal on the letter as soon as she saw it. She tried to be enthusiastic. It bore the Stewart family seal, and the letter was undoubtedly from her handsome betrothed, Walter Stewart, with whom she should be completely smitten.
The Stewart family was not only insanely powerful in the Highlands, as a member of the English and Scottish noble council, but it was also well known for having a lairdess. Lairdess Margaret held a regency position because her husband died not long after her son was born and neither he nor she had any male relatives. She had taken their world by storm, refusing to cower in the face of power and instead making a name for herself as her lands flourished under her control. Her son, Walter, was of age now, and as soon as he found a bride and made himself a man, he would take over from his mother.

Bevin had now taken on the role of being his bride. “What a miracle it is that I have found meself so lucky,” she said dully. The Stewart family, despite its power, had every young noblewoman her age clamoring for a chance to be chosen. She, on the other hand, had been going about her business when she learned of her betrothal by reading a letter out for her father. Bevin had been chosen as Walter’s bride because of his friendship with Lairdess Margaret Stewart.

Was Bevin excited? Of course she was. Every social gathering she attended now was packed with people eager to meet her and those who were curious about her, the dainty brunette who happened to get such a lucky break and marry the man who was about to become the most powerful Laird in the Highlands. She smiled at them and matched their joy, unable to count how many times she had been called lucky, both by herself and by those around her.

She grinned until her cheeks hurt, and her laugh was thin and lifeless. It wasn’t that Walter Stewart was in any way flawed. No, the Stewart heir was a dashing young man. Blonde with icy blue eyes; intelligent and well-traveled. He had a wide range of experience in the world, which not many people could claim. He walked with a dignity that made everyone in the room want to defer to him, and he was courteous in his letters to her. Polite and filled with stories. He was always saying or sharing something.

Many people would give anything to be in her shoes, but when she saw his letters, there was no rush to open them and see what he would say next. She usually pretended, forcing herself to be enthused. What is the matter with ye, Bevin? This is somethin’ great. Why are ye nae moved? Are ye tryin’ tae be ungrateful?

She pondered many questions as those around her swooned over Walter’s letters to her. He once sent her preserved flowers, and the young ladies at the tea party she was attending nearly cried. Many people complained about how boring and unoriginal their own betrotheds were, with some not having the time to exchange frequent letters with them as Walter did with her, and others stumbling over their words, unsure of what a woman wanted to hear.

I suppose I really am just lucky… She had laughed, but in truth, she did not feel lucky at all. She did not feel anything. She sighed in the bath as Louisa washed her hair and applied scented oils to her skin. Another present from Walter. Louisa oiled her supple skin again after she dried off from her bath. When she was finished getting ready, she reflected light with a marvelous, dewy look, as if she had been scrubbed by pearls.
“Dae ye want me tae tie up yer hair today, Miss?” Louisa asked. Bevin raised her gaze to the mirror. Her delicate shoulders stood out more in the simple white dress she wore, and her long brown hair, now combed out, fell in a silky curtain down her back, framing her diamond-shaped face.

“Nae… leave it,” Bevin said, taking the letter from her dressing table and opening it listlessly.

“Aye, ye are right. It looks lovely this way. I shall go fetch yer breakfast,” Louisa said, heading for the door.

“Dae nae bother, I will come down when I am done here,” Bevin said. Louisa quietly nodded and exited the room, leaving Bevin alone with Walter’s letter. She unfolded the neatly folded paper to reveal his penmanship in elegant strokes of ink.

Me dear betrothed, Bevin.

It has been too long since our betrothal was unofficially announced by our parents and since then, letters have been forced tae suffice for the communication between us. However, that is about tae come tae an end. I have returned from me trip tae France and so me maither and I shall be visitin’ yer home tae make our betrothal official before the clans and then hold the feast. And finally, we shall be able tae converse face tae face. I look forward tae meetin’ ye properly.

Yer soon tae be husband, Walter.

Bevin read the letter twice, the first for its contents and the second to see if it would intrigue her in any way. Nae a thing? Nae heart thumpin’? Nae butterflies in me belly? She sighed and forced a smile on herself. Even if she wasn’t naturally excited, she would compel herself to be; after all, there was something to be enthusiastic about. Her wonderful betrothed, who had made her the envy of all women her age, was finally coming to the castle to make their engagement official.

She’d barely had any physical interaction with Walter. They had met at a ball once; she had run into him while he was standing with a group of his friends. Her drink had splashed out of her cup and onto her hand a little, so he had been gracious enough to offer her his handkerchief. With a kind smile, he told her she could keep it because he would be traveling soon and it would be too much of a burden to ask her to return it. She had accepted it gratefully and had not given it much thought, despite the fact that she could feel his and his friends’ gazes on her back even after she had left.

He had begun to communicate with her through letters after their parents had announced their betrothal, and in those letters, he never referred to the incident with the handkerchief; just talking to her as if they had never met, so she felt too awkward to bring it up. She wondered if it would be strange to return it now if she ran into him again. It felt twice as strange just keeping it, and she couldn’t throw it away in case he remembered.
She folded the letter back up with a sigh and a forced smile once more. “There’s a lot tae prepare, now is nae time tae wallow, Bevin,” she said to herself. She needed to tell her father; she was sure Lairdess Margaret would have sent him a letter as well, but she knew he hadn’t seen it yet. He was usually lost in the bottle and could barely deal with his problems. She was saddened by the thought. She generally did her best to pick up the slack, reading him his letters while he was hungover and offering assistance where she could. She was behaving like a mother to him in order to keep the shame of his current situation hidden.

After her mother’s death, she was obligated to be strong for him. That was why she agreed to the betrothal in the first place, when her opinion was completely ignored. She was simply expected to be content. She knew, however, that her marriage aided the clan’s social standing, so she remained silent.

Bevin was a young woman who was bound by her circumstances to become strong. She was the best at putting on a brave face while concealing her pain. She rarely asked herself what she truly desired because she knew she wouldn’t get it. Not anymore. She loved her father, but she had mixed feelings about a parent who was neglectful and selfish. It was an exhausted love that persisted for unknown reasons. She was also aware of her duties and hoped to perform them well. She was a woman and the clan’s sole heir, so she knew it was her responsibility to marry profitably. The clan’s well-being depended on her. Even if she didn’t like it, she had an obligation to them.

She went downstairs to eat breakfast after putting Walter’s letter in her drawer with the rest of them. Louisa had already set the table for her, so she sat down to eat while the maid served her.

“What was the news in the letter, Miss?” Louisa asked as she stood to the side with a towel over one arm.

“Walter and his maither are on their way tae our castle tae make our betrothal official and hold the feast,” Bevin said, eating quietly. Louisa audibly gasped.

“What? Is that nae big news? We have so much tae dae, so much tae prepare… ye need tae tell the Laird,” Louisa said excitedly. Bevin sighed.

“Aye, I ken.”

If I can find me faither, that is.

Seeing her expression, Louisa pressed her lips together.

“Yer faither is nae back yet, is he?” she asked.

“Nae, he is nae,” Bevin admitted.

“Ye should wait for him by his chambers,” she suggested as Bevin finished her meal.

“Ye are right. I will dae that. Let us hope he is sober when he returns,” she said.

Bevin followed Louisa’s advice and went to stand outside his door. She had just leaned against the wall when she heard two guards laughing as they rounded the corner. They were dragging a large unconscious man she recognized as her father without looking twice. He was covered in vomit and his cloak was dusty. She was ashamed.

“Think about it. What kind of Laird dae we even have? How are we tae respect him when we have tae pick him up in the middle of the square, drunk tae stupor and in a pool of his own sick?” the first guard cackled.

“Dae ye think he slept there all night? It was very late when Keenan asked us tae fetch him. Perhaps we should have gone when he told us tae?” the second asked.

“Clearly he spent all night there. Ye can tell he is still drunk. He must have had his weight in ale tae be this pished. I think he pissed himself as well,” the first said.

“Ugh, that is just disgustin’. Why dae we have tae be the ones tae heft him up all these stairs? The man is heavy, too!”

“Why would not he be? He does nae a thing but eat and drink all day. There used tae be a Laird here before, but now he is barely a man.”

Bevin bit her lower lip in response to the guards’ words. For a brief moment, tears welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them away, forcing herself to maintain a strong front. They weren’t entirely wrong. She knew her father was a total disaster now, but it didn’t feel good to hear others say it. Especially not their guards.

She stepped out of the corner she was hiding in with a frown, revealing herself to them. The two men were so taken aback by her appearance that they almost dropped her father.

“Oh, Miss, we – we did nae see ye there; good morning.” the first one said nervously while the second one just shook in fear.

“Is there anythin’ good about the mornin’ given how much ye were complainin’ just now?” she asked. Both men trembled, unable to respond.

“Take me faither tae his bed and call the maids. Have the cook make him some soup as well,” she ordered. They rushed to do as she instructed, removing his filthy cloak before laying him on the bed. She stood by the door as they left.
“Ye are lucky I am in a forgivin’ mood, but speak of yer Laird disrespectfully again, and ye may lay yer complaints tae the crows when yer heads hang from the castle gates,” she said in a low voice.

The two guards nodded to her and looked terrified while they scurried out of the room. She sighed as she looked at her father on the bed, who was snoring lightly.

What will I dae with ye, faither?

 


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Wrapped in his Highland Sins (Preview)

Prologue

May, 1315

“Do we really have to go?” Edna raised her head as her mother’s musical voice reached her ears. She knew her mother wasn’t talking to her, and she knew it was impolite to listen in on someone else’s conversation, but she couldn’t stop herself. She tiptoed silently towards the open door of her parents’ bedchamber; her ten-year-old frame small enough to avoid casting shadows, thus helping her remain hidden.

“Ye ken that we have to. Not going isnae even an option, Freya,” her father replied, exhaustion evident in his tone. Edna did not know what was wrong but she knew that she wanted to go. She had been looking forward to the Celtic Festival of Beltane all year, and she had no desire to miss it for any reason.

“I ken. I just hope we dinnae regret it.” Edna sighed in relief as she heard her mother finally agree. She had no idea what they were talking about, or what her parents would regret by attending the festival. All she knew was even though her father was a firm man, Edna was confident that her mother could persuade him not to go. So hearing they would be indeed not forced to spend this auspicious day indoors was a great relief.

Edna returned to her perch in front of her castle’s largest window. The night was crisp with something unnameable, as if the sensation was so foreign that it could not be described. Regardless, the air around her felt alive. Edna felt as if the power of the gods was descending and entering her. She often wondered if magic existed and if the gods truly possessed powers. Tonight, she knew the answer to both of those questions was yes; she couldn’t wait to see the powers, magic, and mythical creatures come to life tonight.

“Edna, are ye ready my bairn?” She turned around as her mother walked out of her bedchamber and smiled at her. She knew something was wrong when she looked at her beautiful mother, who had been told by everyone in the clan that her beauty was a gift from God. It’s not as if she didn’t look lovely tonight; she did. Her beauty was just hidden behind a mask of worry, or perhaps fear — rendering Edna slightly afraid. Her mother was her rock, the one person she looked to for motivation, and seeing her troubled pained her.

“I am ready, mama,” Edna replied with a smile as she walked away from the window and went to stand before her.

“My beautiful girl,” her mother picked her up in her arms, and Edna laughed loudly.
Her mother and father both loved picking her up. Her father’s more masculine and larger arms made her feel safer, but her mother made her feel loved. Edna knew she couldn’t live without either of them.

Just then, her father emerged from the bedchamber, handsomely dressed in the clan’s colors; his plaid expertly tied and hung just above his knees. Edna leaped towards him, arms extended, as if she wanted to be in his arms, and sighed into his shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent. There was no one she loved more than her parents.

“Shall we go then?” Edna fervently nodded in response to her father’s question, already concerned about the fact that they would be late. Her father grinned at her enthusiasm and they descended the stairs quickly before exiting the castle. Edna exhaled a sigh of relief, knowing that they’d soon be with everyone else and having the time of their lives.

“Edna, are you excited, my bairn?” Her father asked as they walked along the paved path among the trees.

“I am,” Edna said quickly, squinting to see as far as she could. She could hear the festival sounds in the distance and knew everyone was laughing and dancing. The joy in the air was audibly reverberating through the atmosphere.

“Do you remember what I told you about Beltane?” her father asked, and Edna smiled. She remembered every single word, which could explain why this was her favorite festival of the year.

“Certainly, papa. Beltane is a fire festival,” Edna replied, her eyes twinkling. She was always drawn to fire, and one of the Beltane rituals was to build a bonfire high enough to reach the heavens. Her mother began to laugh at her response, and Edna looked at her with puzzled eyebrows, not understanding what was so amusing.

“It’s so much more than just a fire festival, Edna,” her mother said, lovingly stroking her dark hair.

“Yer mama is right. Beltane is a summer solstice celebration. We Scots have such a hard time during the cold months that when summer comes, we have to thank the gods in the heavens,” her father explained. Edna nodded, knowing it all, but despite the more appropriate significance, it was fire that drew her in.

“We can still go back home, Duncan,” her mother said, her voice almost a whisper.

“No.”

Edna couldn’t understand why her mother insisted on them returning home. Every year, they attended the festival, which brought joy to the entire clan. How could her mother possibly miss such an important day? Edna had no idea what was going on, but she was content. Her parents were accompanying her, and she knew they would have a good time — at the end of the day, this was all that mattered.

They continued walking for a few minutes longer, and Edna noticed that more and more people were appearing. Every single person was out enjoying the night to the best of their abilities. Her eyes sparkled as they approached the riverbank where the festival was taking place. The bonfire was already alight and glowing as brightly as the morning sun, exactly as she had imagined. Her father lowered her but kept her hand in his.

“Stay beside me, Edna,” her father said loudly enough to be heard above the din. She smiled as she tightened her grip on his hand and moved forward. Everyone who saw them nodded respectfully to her parents, and her father did the same. The ladies also stroked her hair and patted her shoulder.
“Yer finally here. I thought ye weren’t even coming,” a young lady said to her father. Edna stared at him for a few seconds longer, trying to put a name to the familiar face, but she couldn’t.

“I wouldnae miss the Beltane for the world,” her father exclaimed, and a passing server handed him a large wooden mug; he took a swig before proceeding to meet with some other men.

“Freya, yer here,” a woman greeted her mother warmly with a quick hug.

“Duncan didnae listen to me,” her mother said quietly, so that only the woman and Edna could hear her; the woman gave her father a quick glance before nodding in agreement.

“Edna, darlin’,” the woman said as she extended her hand, who took it. “Freya, I believe your daughter will be more beautiful than you when she grows up.”

“I ken. She is already perfect. The gods have blessed her with more looks than I could ever have,” her mother replied, picking up Edna in her arms. Edna had always heard people compliment her appearance and say she looked like her mother.

“Yer right,” the woman replied before waving goodbye and disappearing into the crowd. Her mother returned her father’s gaze, the string of tension between them drawn taut. Their earlier argument had caused a minor squabble, and Edna could sense it.

“Can I go play?” she asked her mother, who placed her on the ground but did not let go of her hand.

“No, Edna. Ye’ll be staying with us tonight.” Edna turned to look at her father with puzzled eye — he smiled as he looked down at her innocent expression.

“Listen to your mama. She just wants the best for ye,” her father agreed, and Edna’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She couldn’t let this minor annoyance crush her spirits or make her feel bad. It was still a night of celebrations, and she planned to take advantage of it in whatever way she could. She stood between her mother and father, watching the people at the festival mingling. Everyone was dressed in clan colors and looked as radiant as ever. Beltane was a time of great joy and fertility celebration. Edna noticed her mother twitch beside her and wondered how she could be anxious in such a vibrant place. She took her mother’s hand in hers and smiled up at her, hoping to calm her down. She had no idea what was bothering her at this time, but she wished for all of her problems to go away.

“It’s time to start the fire,” a young man shouted from afar, and everyone around them roared. They had all been anticipating this moment; the sky turning a bright, fiery orange. Edna took a deep breath and smiled broadly, as this was her favorite part of the evening.

“Are you ready, Edna?” her father questioned, extending his hand towards her.

“Yes, papa,” Edna assured him, already overjoyed. She put her hand in his as he picked her up and placed her on his shoulders. She squealed with delight when she realized she was taller than everyone else.

“I pray that this summer will be more joyful and prosperous than the last,” her father exclaimed, turning to face everyone, his voice echoing through the mountains. Everyone raised their hands in the air and wished those around them prosperity and happiness.

The cheering grew louder around them, and Edna joined in as the night sky alighted from the ever-rising flames. That moment was everything she had ever desired. Her parents, clan, and the world around her filled with joyful sounds. Nothing could have tainted the purity of those few minutes, she reasoned.

“Duncan.” A loud voice from behind them called out her father’s name. She looked at the man in front of her father, his gaze fixed on his face. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone waited in anticipation. Edna had no idea what was going on, but she knew something was wrong.

Her father assisted her in sliding down from his shoulders, and her mother quickly arrived to stand beside her. She took Edna’s hand in her own and yanked her away from her father, but the girl refused to move.

Before anyone could say anything or move, the strange man lunged at her father, who was unable to block the attack due to its suddenness. The crowd let out a loud gasp as it took a few seconds for everyone to realize what was going on. Edna’s eyes widened as the man charged ahead at breakneck speed, a dagger drawn in his right hand.

He was able to close the gap in a matter of seconds. He stabbed her father in the chest with the golden dagger in his hands. Edna’s entire body went limp as she watched her father painfully move both of his hands to his chest. Blood began to ooze from the wound, turning both of his hands bright red. Darkness gradually obscured her vision, and the last thing she heard was a loud, startling scream before collapsing to the ground, surrendered to her unconscious. Those few moments had brought her life to a standstill — they had submerged it into an unfathomable abyss — and she was unable to open her eyes again.

 

Chapter One

10 years later

Every man, woman, and child in the McKenzie clan was looking forward to Ronin’s arrival. Happiness had long vanished from the people’s faces, but now they had a reason to celebrate and rejoice. Mara, the clan’s lady, widow of the laird, and the mother of the boy who was finally returning home to take his father’s place. No one wanted to offend her or get in her way. She was a force to be reckoned with, a woman whose blood was so cold that the clan was convinced she lacked any heart at all.

They were aware that she had not always been this way. She, too, was once a young, lively girl who knew the pleasures of life. Her husband’s death had forced her to transform into this feared woman. She had no choice but to adapt to the circumstances — a position that rendered her unapproachable. But even she appeared cheerful today; all because of her son.

“Is there anything else ye want me to do?” Lachlan asked as he stood beside her, inspecting the decorations.

“Do ye think he’ll like all this, Lachlan?” she asked, her voice uncertain. Lachlan was aware that Mara had no idea what to expect. Her son had been sent to France for studies eight years before. They had no idea who he had become, and they were both a little scared to find out. Though Lachlan was confident that Ronin would remain the young boy he remembered, the young boy who had played with him when they were kids.

“He will. Have faith in me,” Lachlan assured her and by doing so, trying to assure himself as well.

Lachlan was relieved to see the way things were to unfold; Mara had been carrying far too much responsibility for far too long, and it was time to share the load. Ronin was finally returning home to help ease her burden and take the position that had been waiting for him; to become the new laird of the clan.

“I believe in an hour or so, he will be here,” Lachlan said, watching the woman’s eagerness spread across her face.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Mara said absently before returning to the palace. Lachlan stepped forward and mounted his horse, watching her walk away. He, too, was ecstatic to see his childhood best friend. It had been eight years since the boys had parted ways, and Lachlan knew he would meet a young man who had spent far too much time in the civilized lands of France. As Lachlan waited outside the castle walls for Ronin, all he could think about was whether his friend was prepared to shoulder the responsibility that awaited him.

He sat atop his horse and stood along the path that would bring his friend home. A few minutes later, the sound of horse hooves reached his ears, just as he had predicted. It was immediately followed by the sight of his best friend riding towards him at full gallop atop a beautiful chestnut horse. His blonde hair reached just above his shoulders and blew in the breeze, trailing silkily behind him. Lachlan noticed Ronin’s blue eyes shone brightly, giving him the appearance of being both young and energetic. Handsome too.
Lachlan grinned. The two men stood in front of each other, serious expressions on their faces. Each of them evaluated the changes that had transpired in the last eight years. How much he’d grown; a young boy no longer. Every lass in Scotland would lose their minds over him.

“Ronin McKenzie is finally home,” Lachlan said, a smile on his face. Ronin returned the smile as he dismounted his horse. The two friends united in an embrace.

“Why do I feel like these eight years have been but a few days?” Ronin questioned after they finally separated.

“Because yer love for this land has reduced the time ye’ve spent apart to an infinitesimal fraction. Ye will always be a Scotsman, Ronin, no matter where ye live,” Lachlan replied.

“You are right. Let’s go home; I can’t wait to see mama,” Ronin said, getting on top of his horse once again as Lachlan followed after him.

“She is waiting for ye anxiously.”

The two men rode dangerously fast across the narrow valleys and steep pathways, just as they had done as young boys. They were chastised back then for attempting to appear heroic, but today, people just stared as they rode by. Ronin knew his clan’s members were relieved to see him return, and he was just as happy to be home. He’d been away from where he belonged for far too long, and returning home filled him with joy. France had been lovely, and his education had been beneficial, but there was no place like the one where your heart resides.

He’d missed the rivers, valleys, and mountains, as well as the cold after the rain, and the beginning of summer. He had missed his mother, his clan, and the land where he had been born. When the two of them arrived at the castle, Ronin was overjoyed to see how far his mother had gone to welcome him. The entire castle was decked out. He dismounted his horse and walked through the large gates to meet his mother who was standing on the stairs, her eyes glistening with worry.

Ronin took a deep breath as his gaze fell on her. She was still the same woman, but a lot older. He was well aware that this was the result of shouldering the clan’s responsibility all by herself after his father’s death. She had absorbed it all over her body, and the effects were severe. But he was there now — she would never have to face those burdens alone, ever again.
“Mother,” he said, taking her hands in his and kissing them briefly. She drew him in into a warm embrace.

“Oh, Ronin, how I have missed you,” his mother said, a single tear trailing from her eye, which she quickly brushed away.

“I missed you too, mama,” Ronin assured her with a smile, and she nodded enthusiastically.

“Ye have grown to be more handsome than when I last saw ye. The same blue eyes and blonde hair but so much more bonny,” his mother complimented as he laughed.

“You just need a reason to praise me,” Ronin shrugged, always uncomfortable with compliments. They entered the castle, relieved to see that it hadn’t changed much since he had left. It still looked like home, and felt instantly at ease simply being there.

“Ronin, ye must be tired after yer long journey. Lachlan will lead you to your room. Rest,” his mother said affectionately. He was tired indeed but not in the mood to sleep. He just wanted to rest for a while before venturing out to explore the land he called home. It had to have changed in the last eight years, and Ronin wished to see it all with fresh eyes.

“Yer right. I will take my leave,” Ronin replied, walking towards his bedchamber, Lachlan close behind.

“Where do ye think you’re going?” Lachlan asked, stopping his friend.

“To my bedroom?” Ronin responded, his tone doubtful. He suddenly felt strange in his own castle, but he supposed that is what happens when someone returns after a long absence.

“Yer bedchamber, my future laird, is no longer there. Yer mama thought her son ought to have a bigger one.”

“Why?”

“Because ye have just returned from France, the land of the rich,” Lachlan replied, his tone tinged with humor.

“The land of the rich you say? I lived in a dormitory and had to share a bedchamber with another lad. I am not used to riches,” Ronin admitted candidly.

“Ye’ll get used to it, ye’ll see.”

“Never.”

Lachlan turned around and led Ronin to the opposite side of the castle. As they walked, he became aware of the subtle changes around him and realized how much time had passed. They ascended the stairs, and the final door on the floor led into his new quarters. When the two young men entered, Ronin smiled as he noticed that all of his childhood possessions were still kept there. It was as if he’d never left. He took a deep breath in the familiar surroundings and went straight to the large bed in the center of the room.

“What do ye think ye are doing?” Lachlan asked as he saw Ronin walk towards the bed.

“Resting.”

“France has softened you, Ronin. Who even gets tired from traveling? Get up and change yer clothes. We must celebrate yer return,” Lachlan said, but Ronin made no attempt to rise. He instead closed his eyes and shifted to a more comfortable position on the bed. Lachlan rolled his eyes as he approached the bed and sat down beside his friend.

“How was yer time in France? What did ye even study there?”
“France is a lovely country, my friend. We studied many things, but the one thing I will miss the most is poetry,” Ronin sighed. He had thoroughly enjoyed studying the love poems — he could lose himself in the art of writing for as long as eternity itself. Lachlan scoffed loudly before raising his head from the bed and turned to face Ronin.

“Poetry meaning poems?”

“Precisely.”

“What kind of poems?”

“Love poems?”

“So ye must ken a lot of love poems?”

“Several,” Ronin replied proudly, overjoyed that his friend was taking an interest. But then, Lachlan’s loud laughter proved him wrong. “Whatever is so amusing?”

“Have they taught ye anything useful?” his friend asked after suppressing his laughter.

“Poems are useful.”

“Maybe in France, old friend, but not in Scotland,” Lachlan replied before standing up and reaching out a hand to Ronin. “Let’s get ye to the pub and show ye what ye’ve been missing all these years.”

He knew Lachlan would never let him have a few hours alone, so he got up and changed as soon as he could before heading out with his friend. He had never been into excessive drinking or dancing, but he knew his friend wanted to celebrate, and he was content to oblige. When they arrived at the pub, he felt he was in for an adventurous night. Oh, how lovely to be back home.
***
“Edna, ye cannae possibly think that we will let ye stay home on yer birthday. That is preposterous,” Jana said, the horror she felt emanated clearly through her tone. Edna rolled her eyes at her friend, knowing these were just tactics to convince her.

“Jana, we go tae the pub almost every week. Is it truly necessary for us tae go today as well? I would rather just sit home and enjoy my birthday with ye all,” Edna replied softly, roaming her eyes around the room to look at her friends. Three pairs of stony eyes met her gaze, and she knew that no one was going to listen to her for even one second.

She had a small group of friends and mostly preferred staying within a select few people. Jana, Laura, and Kathy were her closest ones in the world, and she had no desire to disappoint them. She knew they just wanted her to have fun and enjoy her birthday, and she did not blame them. She would have wanted the same for any of them as well.

“We are still going tae the pub,” Laura said firmly and walked towards Edna; extending a hand. She took hold of her friend’s outstretched fingers and stood up from the bed. She approached the looking glass on one side of her bedchamber and examined her reflection in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her long, black hair, which flowed like silk behind her back and down to her waist. Her features were frail, and her face was innocent. She smiled.

“Ye look beautiful like ye always do, Edna. Stop fussing,” Kathy said as she walked towards the door, smiling. Edna rolled her eyes and followed the girls out of the bedchamber. The house was almost empty, but that was the case most of the time — her mother must be sleeping or gazing out the window, lost in her own world. Having grown accustomed to such a situation, she merely exited the keep with her friends and made their way to the pub, determined to have a good time.

Edna was lost in her own thoughts as she walked ahead of everyone else. She had turned twenty today and couldn’t believe how quickly time was passing. She thought her world had ended for her ten years ago, but she soon discovered that time stops for no one. It just keeps flowing and unfolding without any regard to anything or anyone.

“Edna, walk slowly,” Jana called out from behind her, and she stopped, allowing her friends to catch up. Just as they reached her, the girls linked hands with one another and walked ahead together. A few minutes later, they arrived at the pub who was full of people like always.

She only ever went to the pub with her friends. She enjoyed dancing and drinking, but not excessively or on a weekly basis. She found true happiness in solitude, especially on a day like her birthday. The dimly lit building was alive with the sounds of music, moving feet, and the endless chatter and laughter of the patrons who had already been there for a while. She could feel a headache coming on, but she owed it to her friends to try to enjoy herself.

“Drinks?” Jana yelled above the din, and all three of them raised their hands. They made their way to the bar. Kathy drew the attention of the young man working, and he approached them with a charming smile on his face.

“Tonight is our friend’s birthday. We wish something strong,” Laura said, a flirtatious grin on her lips.

“Who is the birthday girl?” he asked, staring at everyone. Jana directed her finger at Edna, who noticed his gaze lingering on her face for a few seconds longer. He smiled at her, and she raised an eyebrow, signaling that she was not interested. He quickly poured four shots of whisky and four mugs of ale for the girls and set them in front of them.

“Enjoy,” he said before moving on to the next customer.

“Okay, girls. One, two, three, dram!” Jana shouted, and they all grabbed their glasses and downed them in one go. Edna felt the scalding liquid slide down her throat, scorching everything in its path. She could already feel herself losing her inhibitions, and she knew she couldn’t drink any longer. She had no desire to be so drunk that she forgot her own birthday.

“Let’s go dance,” Laura said as she took her hand in hers and led her to the large space in the room where people were dancing to the sounds of bagpipes, accordions, and fiddles. Edna trailed behind her but quickly lost interest. The other dancers were shoving her around, and the heat inside the pub was making the whole thing unpleasant. She knew she needed some fresh air.

“I am going outside for a bit of fresh air,” she whispered in Jana’s ear. Jana nodded, and Edna made her way through the crowd and out into the evening. She sighed in relief as she felt the cold wind on her body; standing near the pub’s back wall and gazing up at the starry night sky. It was stunning.

Her birthday was always a sad occasion for her, and she couldn’t be happy about it no matter how hard she tried. She couldn’t help but think about her father. She remembered how he was always there for her during on that day, making her feel like the most important little girl in the world. She imagined how different things would have been if he hadn’t been taken from her.

Edna took a deep breath in, trying to keep the tears at bay. She knew she couldn’t cry, but she desperately wanted to. Her father was somewhere among the stars, and he was still alive in her heart. He wasn’t far away, but inside her. She smiled despite her sadness, knowing that he loved her no matter where he was. A chill ran through her body, causing her to shiver slightly. She had no idea why until she looked around. Someone was staring at her very closely.

 


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Saga of a Highland Avenger (Preview)

Prologue

His brother would win—he had to—yet still, Arran stood on his toes watching, his heart drumming against his chest like a giant fist against a door. Beneath the window where he was hiding, twelve feet below, swords crashed together as soldiers shouted and scattered. Arran’s eyes were wet with fear, but he could not raise his gaze from Bruce. He watched as his sixteen-year-old brother, a boy who was far too tall for his age and covered in silvery cloth, breastplate clasped over his chest, slash through the MacKenzie soldiers.

Arran’s breath hitched as a soldier lunged toward Bruce, his pommel striking against the back of Bruce’s neck. Bruce squealed and swiveled around, his elbow connecting with his attacker’s jaw. The red-haired soldier staggered for a moment, then regained his stance. He charged toward Bruce again, his long blade swinging. Bruce dropped to his knees, raising his own sword above his head. The clang of metal thundered against the air as their swords met. Swiftly, Bruce raised himself into a standing position and, with one slash, he tore into his attacker’s chest.

Blood sprayed about as the red-haired man fell to the ground with one last cry. Bruce turned around, edging forward.

“Bruce!” Arran gasped upon spotting another attacker making toward his brother. He jumped to his feet and ran toward the door, only for his mother to bar his passage.

“Come here!” She pulled him toward her, then cupped his face. She was dressed in a white linen gown, with silver earrings that dangled to her chin.

“We have tae help them, Ma,” Arran whined. He shivered in his mother’s embrace. She smelled of fresh flowers and rose water, of comfort and solace, but it did little to ease Arran’s worry. He felt the heave of her chest as she sighed. “We must help them! We must do something,” repeated Arran.

“Nae we,” she replied. “And nae ye either! Yer a mere lad, Arran. Yer too young tae understand these things. Now go tae yer chambers as yer father ordered ye tae do.”

He withdrew from his mother, chided and feeling useless. He hated feeling useless. He wanted to burst onto the battlefield and fight beside his brother and father. Instead, he was left to watch the battle unfold from high up, helplessly.

He had to do something.

“Yer chambers, Arran,” his mother repeated sternly, and it rang strangely. Ma had a soft spot for all three of her sons, and she had never scolded them as hard as Arran had seen other mothers scold their boys. Arran knew Ma was only trying to play her part, too, and keep him from harm’s way.

“Yes Mother,” Arran said as obediently as he could and made for his chambers.

The guards in the hall stood to attention as he squeezed past, then navigated the passageways and corridors leading to his chambers. He nudged open the door and poised himself by the nearest window to catch sight of his brother once more.

He held his breath as he watched Bruce swivel around, dancing away from a gray-haired soldier and stabbing through another. The defeated man toppled forward, blood sputtering from his mouth before he fell back, his head landing hard against Bruce’s feet.

“Yeah!” Arran cried with a hop, unable to contain his pride. The men around his brother cheered, growled, and bled as the ground beneath them darkened with sweat and blood.

Suddenly, an elbow in Bruce’s rib made him lose his footing, and he stumbled back. He looked up in surprise as MacKenzie soldiers gathered around him, their brutal intentions clear on their faces even from Arran’s perch.

Bruce sought an exit, his eyebrows set low in determination. When he found no purchase, he stuck his chest out and raised his sword, ready for anything, ready to defeat them all by himself.

Many feet behind his brother, Pa slashed through enemies of his own. Arran willed his father to look back, he prayed he would come charging to Bruce’s rescue.

Arran’s knuckles were white as he gripped the windowsill. He felt hot and pale, choked with helplessness. Bruce was outnumbered. Even worse, here Arran was, standing and watching from an open window, unable to do anything about it.

Then, Arran remembered his stones and sling and dashed away to find them. Where had he put them last? Under his pillows, perhaps, or in a drawer. He fumbled around the room.

Even though he was no great shot, surely a stone or two were bound to hit a few heads and cause enough of a distraction for Bruce to escape. Arran patted around and found nothing. He held his face in his hands and worried he had left them in Bruce’s chambers. He could run out and fetch them, but would he get back in time to save his brother?

Arran returned to the window. He wanted to yell, “I’m coming, Bruce, wait for me! I’ll save ye, brother!” Instead, he could only watch as a red-haired man drove a sword straight through his brother’s chest.

Bruce was a giant of a sixteen-year-old boy, and he fell forth face down like a mountain. The castle stilled as the boy hit the earth head first, crashing into the dirt.

For a moment, wrenching silence filled the castle; silence in Arran’s chambers; silence below, in the once rowdy hell of a kitchen where Cook hummed and her servants bustled about; silence, even on the bloodied patch of land where the MacKenzies had orchestrated their battle. It was a silence so cruel and calm that Arran swore he could hear his brother’s last breaths against the wind.

Silence came first, then chaos. A scream pierced through the air, devastated and broken in its pitch. Arran shifted his gaze as his Pa cried out again. He watched his father, the great Laird MacLean, lunge toward his son, slashing through the MacKenzie soldiers in his path until he had Bruce in his arms. He cupped his son’s face, Bruce’s shoulders shaking as he spat up blood and shuddered with his final breaths.

Arran wiped his eyes. He hadn’t realized he had started crying until he saw a similar set of tears stream down Pa’s face, running through a layer of dust, sweat, and enemy’s blood.

The MacKenzie soldiers watched on, frozen in place as Arran’s father held his eldest son. All at once, Laird MacLean lowered his son’s lifeless body to the ground.

Arran could not muffle his cries. He screamed and shouted his brother’s name, clutching at his chest as Pa placed a hand over Bruce’s face, closing his eyelids.

Arran stepped away from the window. He was not strong enough, nor fast enough. He was useless and helpless. He hadn’t even been able to find a damned pouch of stones.

He slammed his chamber door behind him, storming past the guards as they pulled away from their lookouts, straightening their spears and regaining their standing positions in the corridor. He stormed past anxious servants and Pa’s counselor, Ian, who shouted his name and called after him.

Arran ran until he was out in the open field, where the sun-scorched earth burned against the soles of his feet.

He dashed to his father’s side, past the MacKenzie soldiers, his steps charged with wild frenzy as he drew closer to his brother’s dead body.

Arran wished it all away.

He wanted so badly to reach Bruce’s side and find that his eyes were wide open. He had never wanted anything more, but as Arran reached his brother’s body, a scream burst from his throat, and he fell to his feet.

Pa’s voice bellowed beside him. “Arran! Get away from here!” Arran knew that his father was mere feet from him, but in the hailstorm of his grief, they may as well have been countries apart.

Arran refused to step away from his brother. He could not abandon Bruce in death, but his head spun around in his skull. Warm tears blurred his vision, and he couldn’t even make out his brother’s face as men took back up their fight around him, yelling at one another, chanting war cries as their swords met.

He tried to blink away his tears, but he couldn’t, and they blinded him. Arran knew he would never forget the sight of Bruce’s body as it grew cold and pale, dried blood lining his torn, purple lips, the sun-drenched beneath them both.
“Arran!”

Arran felt a strong hand on his elbow yanking him up. When he looked back, it had been Sir Ian. Droplets of spit flew in Arran’s face as the old man shouted furiously, trying to draw the boy away.

Arran struggled against Sir Ian’s grasp, but it was no use. The man was older, taller, and bigger than him.

“Bruce!” he cried as Sir Ian dragged him away, choking on his brother’s name—his dead brother’s name.

Arran felt a chill run down his spine, too cold for words, that only subsided once they reached the inside of the keep. Finally, Sir Ian released Arran from his hold and shut the door of the boy’s chambers behind them.

“What do ye think yer doing, lad?” Sir Ian roared, his voice shaking with fury. His long, gray beard was shaking too.

“He’s dead!” Arran cried. “They killed him…”

“Oh lad,” came Sir Ian’s voice. He planted a series of hesitant yet gentle pats on Arran’s back, though it did not make Arran feel better. If anything, it only made him angry, as if he might burst out of his body. He clenched his fists, sizzling with hatred for the MacKenzies, for the clan that had claimed his brother’s life.

“They killed him,” he repeated helplessly, shrugging off Sir Ian’s hand. “I could have stopped them, Sir Ian. I could have stopped them!”

Sir Ian shook his head. “Ye couldn’t have, Arran. This is nae on you.”

“I could have!” Arran cried. “I was too slow. I looked for my stones, I did, but I couldn’t find where I put them.”

Sir Jan drew in a deep sigh. “Arran, lad. Tis not yer fault. A mere lad ye are. Now remain here, aye? I must return. I must…” The old man took pause. “I must find yer maither.”

Arran turned away from Sir Ian, and he did not look back as his Pa’s counselor shut the door.

Sir Ian was wrong. It was his fault. He wasn’t a mere lad. He was a boy, and he would soon grow into a man, and he could have found those stones, but he did not.
He had failed his brother, and it had cost him his life.

Arran returned to the windowsill. He wiped his eyes and watched as Pa raised his sword arm high, swinging through a fleet of charging MacKenzie soldiers. Arran bunched his fists tight. Aye, that’s right, he thought. Make them pay for their crime. Kill them all! Avenge my brother’s death!

However, almost as quickly as Pa had thrust his sword forth, he lowered it in a show of weakness. Arran gasped as Pa flung the blade away. Its hilt glinted in the sun, then rolled and clattered away until it finally came to a stop against the dirt.

Arran could not believe what was unfolding below. His father turned his face to the sun, tears glinting in his eyes, and cried at the top of his lungs, “The MacKenzies have triumphed! Surrender!” He repeated: “The MacKenzies have won! We surrender! Surrender!”

“Nae, nae, nae!” Arran shook his head, mad in his disbelief.

His father fell to his knees, tearing off his helmet and his hauberk, devastated by grief. Arran watched his Pa hunch over his brother’s cold body, cradling Bruce’s head as he continued to shout his surrender, urging his clan to do the same.
One by one MacLean soldiers yanked off their helmets and flung their words to the ground.

It was then that Laird MacKenzie rose from the smoke and dust of the battleground, his helmet tucked in his underarm. He was a large man with a large head, and the ground seemed to thunder beneath his feet as he approached Arran’s father. Arran thought his Pa looked so small in comparison, whittled away by grief next to his brother’s killer.
Pa rose to his feet, despondent as he parleyed with Laird MacKenzie.

Arran lost sight of the men as they stepped away, for he was too short to see. He edged away from the window and reached for his sturdy toy trunk. He pushed it to the window, then climbed atop it, steadying himself with arms. One poor maneuver and he suddenly lost his footing.

The boy yelled as he toppled backward and landed with a cruel thud on the floor of his chambers, the chest of his belongings spilling open with wooden and ivory toys. To his dismay, hidden among the junk was the purse of stones he had searched for.

Arran swept the stones up and let out a devastating whimper. It wasn’t long before another wail came to join his own as an ear-splitting cry rang through the castle walls.

He ran to the window to find that the MacKenzie soldiers had departed. All that was left in their wake was a wretched battleground dotted with patches of ripped armor, surrendered swords and helmets, and Bruce’s body. The servants heaved him off the ground and arranged him onto a cart, their movements heavy and solemn.

The screams had come from his mother. She was clutching at her chest, calling for her son as they wheeled his lifeless body away. Pa stood before her, his head lowered in sorrow, trying to take his wife in his embrace. Their words were clear against the quiet of the courtyard.

“Nae, ye could nae have!” Ma was wailing. She pushed against Pa. “How could ye?”

“Ava, I beg of ye, please,” said Pa, urging her to lower her voice.

“I cannae have it. Nae!” She shook her head hard and cried more desperately.

“He’s vowed it, Ava. He’s vowed it,” said Pa.

“An’ ye are tae take their word for it, are ye now? We are tae believe it? My own lad! The first o’ my loins. An’ now they want another!” She staggered backward, holding herself in her own embrace. Pa’s arms reached out to steady her, but she shrugged him off.

“He’s vowed it on his sword; he did.”

“I will hear nae more ’o this. Nae, I refuse this,” she declared.

“We dinnae have a choice, Ava. Ye ken what happens,” he said more quietly. “We have lost, an’ Laird MacLean has vowed tae take care o’ our clan.”

“Yer a man, Lamont. Yer a soldier,” she spat. “Ye above all others know that words hold no weight without a pact.”

His father took pause. His shoulders sank as he let out a heavy gust of breath. “I know, Ava. Tis why I asked fo’ something concrete to secure the peace between us.”

Arran watched Ma’s head jerk up, her eyes shooting daggers at her husband. “What did ye ask for? What did ye ask for, Lamont?”

“I asked for his lass’s hand in marriage… to our Arran.”

Arran jolted backward. Impossible, he thought. Nae, he must have misheard. He dashed out of his chamber and followed the sound of his mother’s voice until he was standing across the yard from his parents, panting and struggling for breath.

“What are ye saying, Lamont?” Ma asked before catching sight of Arran.

“I’m saying as o’ today, our Arran is betrothed to Laird MacKenzie’s eldest lass.”

“Nae!” Arran cried.

Arran’s mother came to settle before him. She drew her arms around him, and he cried into her embrace, her linen gown wet with both of their tears, her shoulders shaking as Arran felt her trying to suppress her mountain of grief. “Ma boy,” she hummed.

He untangled from his mother’s hold. “Maybe,” he started but stopped short as another wicked tremor swept through his body. “Maybe he’ll change his mind, Ma? Maybe it was a mistake, and tomorrow he’ll change his mind.”

His mother nodded, her eyes filled with empty encouragement. Without another word, she looped lightly over his shoulder and led him to his chambers like a specter, stopping only once they reached his door; Arran watched his mother sway on her feet as she pushed the door open and wept. “It’s my fault, Ma,” he began.

She wiped her cheeks, snapping out of her daze. “What do ye mean?”

“I…I wanted tae help him,” he whimpered. “Tae help Bruce. The soldiers surrounded him, and he was all alone, and I searched everywhere for my stones. So that I could catapult them and distract them while he escaped.” He buried his face in his hands.

“But too slow, I was. Too late.”

“Oh, my dear Arran.” His mother reached for him, but Arran shrugged her off. He refused to be comforted any longer.

“It’s not yer fault, Arran,” she said fiercely. “Ye bear no blame in this, no part! Do ye hear me?”

Maybe I didnae bear a part in his death, Arran thought then, But I will bear a part in avenging my brother’s death. I shall find a way tae honor Bruce if it’s the last thing I do.

His mother’s lips were soft against his cheeks as she kissed him. “Rest,” she said. Tears pooled again in her eyes as she shook her head and backed away.

Arran watched his mother, a beautiful, proud woman, as she went, sobbing down the hallway.

CHAPTER ONE

The trick was to take a deep breath before releasing his grip. Bruce had taught him as much all those years ago: “Shut your eyes. Deep breath. Open. Then, release.” Arran did exactly that, and his arrow swirled through the air, past drooping tree branches and falling brown leaves before landing on its target. His arrow etched itself deeply and perfectly into the bark of the tree.

Arran had been practicing archery all morning. He shrugged off thoughts of Bruce as he pulled out another arrow from his bag, set it across his bow, and aimed true.

It was his birthday today. He was twenty-four; Bruce would have been twenty-eight. A dark feeling of grief spread over Arran’s chest like a hot, foul liquid as he released his grip on his bow.

Every year on the morning of his birthday before Bruce’s death, his brother woke him up by creeping into his chamber while he was still asleep and scaring him witless.

Then, with his green eyes singing victorious glee, his blond curls waving down his forehead, he would clamber over Arran, lower his mouth to his ear, and wish him well as loudly and savagely as possible: “La Breithe shona dhuit! A happy birthday tae ye!”
Bruce always had a way of making even the mundane things seem like magic. Of course, Bruce couldn’t make magic anymore. He couldn’t do anything. He was dead. He had been dead for twelve years now.

Arran tried again to shake the memory of Bruce from his head. He channeled his buried memories and emotions into his arm and leveled another, more vicious shot.

“Good one,” Adam said beside him before releasing an arrow of his own. Adam was the son of one of his father’s counselors, and he had been friends with Arran and his younger brother, Douglas, since they had been pups.

Arran was not a man of many words, and neither was Adam. He suspected that was why they enjoyed each other’s company. They rode their horses in silence; they practiced their archery and hunted game in silence, save for the occasional talk about the weather or lauding of an exceptionally fine shot.

“Thank ye,” said Arran. “Fine shot yersel.” The tip of Adam’s arrow lodged itself perfectly between two pieces of large bark on the tree.

Adam grinned and clapped Arran on the back. “Big day today, aye?” he jested, to which Arran shrugged.

Arran did not much care for his birthday, but he tried to summon some level of excitement to appease those around him. He cared for his family and his clan, and he knew the castle and its people needed a reason to smile and celebrate, if only for a day.

As was expected, Arran worked up a smile before gently shrugging Adam’s hand off his shoulder. “Aye, I suppose,” he answered.

“An’ I can smell the kitchens all the way from here, I tell ya,” Adam said. He sauntered off deeper into the woods, patting his stomach playfully as his figure faded in between the trees.

Arran forced a smile as long as Adam was in view. When the trees and their many branches had finally swallowed his friend, he finally relaxed into a scowl. He drew more arrows from his quiver and loosed more than he cared to count.

High above him, the sun was setting red and sinking low to the horizon. Yards away in the castle, he could hear bells ringing. If he stepped a plot or two forward, he knew he would smell Cook’s special soup, roast chicken, and cream cake. Arran patted his growling stomach at the thought of all the food they were busy preparing for his birthday banquet.

He kicked off the caking of wet dirt that clung to the heel of his boots, then sheathed his bow and collected his arrows. He pulled his coat tightly over his trunk, then waded through brambles and short, thorny shrubs as he made for the stables first.
Arran entered the stable. It smelled wet and cold, of dirt, fresh leaves, and horse mess. With a sigh, he took off his hunting bag. The horses neighed and ate in silence.
Arran went to find Black Sebastian, Bruce’s favorite horse, and patted him gently. He was a sturdy horse, dark as midnight and proud and brave as his owner had been. Arran tended to the horse despite the stable boy’s mild protests, claiming that the future laird needs “not concern himself with such lowly tasks”, especially on his birthday.
“It’s alright, Jonah. I can handle this,” he said to the boy.

He gave Sebastian one last gentle smack on the mane, then picked up his bag and bow and made for the castle. Arran trudged through melting snow as he drew closer to home. With each step, he felt heavier, as if some invisible hand had draped a blanket over him, urging him to stay in the forest, where it was safer, where people didn’t ask so much of him. He felt more dispirited than before he had set off for the stables. Perhaps he shouldn’t have paid Sebastian a visit after all.

The great dining hall would be awash with festive preparations for their future laird. Despite Arran’s reservations, he wouldn’t be late for a gathering that was being held in his name. When he reached the courtyard, he was met by a bustle like no other: Cook was yelling at a servant; two guards were huddled in a corner speaking in impassioned tones; and Douglas, his younger brother, was standing with his arms crossed over his big chest, his hairy eyebrows set in hard determination.

“Who’s stolen yer biscuits now?” said Arran in jest. Douglas could be so grave sometimes—most of the time, in fact.

As Arran had expected, Douglas’s scowl did not budge. Instead, and perhaps absentmindedly, he rested his hand limply atop his broad sword belt. It had been clasped tightly around his waist, which was thicker and more muscled than any of the boys his age. He barked at a scurrying servant who’d nearly tripped over before him, then fell in line beside Arran.

“We need tae talk.”

“Oh, aye! Ambush me right before me birthday banquet, why don’t you” said Arran. “What more could a brother ask for?”

Shoulder to shoulder, they made their way through the castle, which hummed with the chatter of servants preparing for an upcoming feast. A group of guards parted for them as they strutted past, up flight after flight of stairs.

“Laird MacKenzie sent a messenger,” Douglas revealed at last.

He kept a steady pace beside Arran, his breathing leveled and even as if the stairs were no object to his might. Arran had trouble catching his breath. Douglas was younger than Arran, but he was taller and twice his size. His brother looked like three boys rolled and flattened into one.

Arran could not find it in himself to answer until they were in his chamber. He unstrapped his bow, then undid the buttons of his shirt.

In the middle of his chamber sat a large bowl of fruits, no doubt left there by Cook.

It had been a small tradition of theirs. A red apple caught the last of the fading sunlight and glowed red in the dim light of the chamber. It brought a smile to Arran’s face. He reached for the fruit and took a generous bite. Then, he turned to his brother. “From whom have ye learned this?”

Douglas shrugged. “That’s nae the important bit, Arran. Faither will ask ye to fulfill that ghastly promise they made all those years ago. Now’s our chance!” Douglas reached for the fruit bowl and bit into an apple of his own. Despite his brooding and permanent grave expression, even he could not resist such a fine-looking selection of treats.

“I hear ye,” Arran said as he unbuttoned his shirt.

Douglas did not look convinced. “Remember? We made a promise o’ to-”

“I don’t need ye, Douglas, to remind me o’ the things that keep me up at night and plague my dreams and get me up in the morning.” He hadn’t meant to sound offish, but he couldn’t help it.

Douglas leveled him a hard glance, but Arran did not blink.

Finally, his brother’s shoulders sagged in resignation. “Alright,” he conceded.

“Everyone’s waiting for ye,” he added, turning on his heels. Without warning, as if to test his older brother’s fortitude, he picked up a fruit and threw it at Arran. Arran lifted his hand swiftly, catching the plum mid-air. He smirked at Douglas.
Bruce would be proud, he thought.

Both brothers grinned at each other.

“Happy birthday, ye old gommy,” said Douglas before pulling the door shut behind him.

Arran rolled his eyes, then stuffed himself with as many apples and strawberries as his belly would allow. He took off the rest of his clothing and allowed himself a long bath. He had the right of it, he thought: he was tired, in spirit and in his bones, from hunting and from his time in the stables, and from the collection of half-slumbers his nights allowed him, plagued with nightmares forever.

The previous night of rest had been no different.

Arran fell into a light sleep, his arms splayed widely over the edge of the tub, his body lathered with soap, his head leaning at a terrible angle.

In his dream, Bruce was nothing more than a blurry figure against the dark, standing so far away, that Arran couldn’t make out his face. Still, Arran knew it was him. He could never forget the way his brother looked. He journeyed toward Bruce, but the more steps he took, the further Bruce drifted away. Arran trudged through swampy forests, then skittered on ice, but it was not enough to close the distance between them.

When Arran finally woke from his sleep, it was to the sound of knocking on his door. Beyond the rich burgundy drapes, night held a blanket of darkness over the MacLean keep. Arran shook his head. He had drifted off on the evening of his birthday, plagued by another nightmare, no less.

He was a man of unrest.

He would always be a man of unrest until he had avenged his brother.

“I’m coming!” he yelled to whoever was behind the door to his chamber. The knocking ceased. Arran washed his body in the cold water of his bath and dressed for the banquet.

He knew what had to be done.

The great dining hall was ablaze with lights as the guard announced Arran’s entrance.
The hall delighted in chatter and good-hearted laughter. The tables were flooded with fine food, and wine overflowed from large glasses.

He excused himself to the noblemen and women for having kept them waiting, then settled beside his brother and father.

“Ah, here we are! He graces us with his esteemed presence, at long last,” came a voice. Arran turned on his heels and was not surprised to find that it was Esme who had spoken. She was the daughter of Sir Ian and had been an only child since her brother had passed in the battle that had also claimed Bruce’s life those twelve years ago.

Their shared loss of a sibling was the only thing Arran had in common with Esme. She was a belligerent young lady with eagle-like eyes who always had a bad word to offer about anyone, at any time. She cared only for the most expensive silk and the most subservient of servants. Arran could hardly believe there had been a time before Bruce’s death when they all played in his mother’s pleasure garden when they had wreaked havoc in the kitchen and had enjoyed hours of hiding and seek in the cellar.

She had somehow grown from a thoughtful, lighthearted young girl into a beautiful but insufferable woman.

Arran knew he would not survive her conversation if it weren’t offset by the company of others. He would have preferred to ignore her altogether, but social gatherings called for manners.

Arran simply nodded in her direction. “Esme,” he stated cooly. “Lovely indeed that ye could make it.”

Esme leveled him a look that made it clear she did not believe him and that she would not play his games, either.

As if by divine intervention, his mother came to the rescue, as was most in her nature. “Happy birthday, my dear boy,” she said, taking his hand lightly in hers.

Arran shot one last hard glance at Esme before returning Ma’s smile. To anyone else, the smile would have been inconsequential, but to Arran, who had shared her loss, who had grieved alongside her, that smile meant more than words ever could. It was a smile that told a tale of lost love and family.

“Thank ye, Maither,” Arran said.

“Ye look handsome,” replied Ma. “Just like Bruce.”

Ma and Pa had hardly spoken of Bruce since his passing as if mentioning his name would be like reliving his death all over again. As such, Arran was surprised to hear his brother’s name slip from between his mother’s lips. Her eyes had turned up in surprise too, as if she were also taken aback.

The dining hall fell into a grave silence, then, that stretched from the noblewomen in their jeweled earrings and the beaded pearls that clasped elegantly at their necks to the noblemen who had been happily talking trade, commerce, and England mere moments before his mother’s words.

Pa broke the silence, and Arran thanked the Heavens. His father raised a glass. “A toast,” he said, “to our guest of honor, to my boy, and to you, future Laird!”

Wine spilled about as the attendees lifted their glasses in Arran’s name and drank gladly. “To Arran, our future laird!” they echoed.

Arran returned Pa’s smile. It was a real smile, one that widened his cheeks and spread up to his sad eyes.

However, it did not last. Soon enough, his father had slipped back into his shell, eating and sipping at his drink in frail silence, nodding along to whatever Sir Ian or a tipsy nobleman was rambling about, and occasionally chipping in an “oh,” or, “ah, yes.”

Over a decade had passed since the battle. The MacKenzies had kept their side of the bargain, and had taken care of the MacLeans and their clan. Peace had reigned, but Pa had not remained the same.

Time and the loss of his firstborn son had beaten him into a fidgety old man. He folded into himself and wore aloofness like a second skin. He demanded silence wordlessly in whatever room he entered, and he spoke little, even when pressed to part his lips and address a gathering.

Arran was not surprised, then, but he was ashamed. He knew he would never forget how quickly Pa had surrendered to the MacKenzie clan after Bruce was killed, how he allowed the MacKenzies to attack them in the first place and claim Bruce’s life, to trample over him and his will like a spineless dog.

Twelve years of peace, for what? For muteness and for cowardice.

Arran ate and drank in silence. After a short moment, and to his surprise, Pa cleared his throat beside him and leaned in close. “Ye’ve entered into a new year, my son,” he said. “And the time has come for you to honor our commitment to the MacKenzies.”

Arran gulped down his drink. He pushed his glass away.

He had known for years that this day would come. Even though Douglas had spoken of it earlier, in his chamber, nothing could have prepared him for his father’s concession.

Arran felt anger rise within him like hot bile. He was enraged at his father’s suggestion, enraged at the idea of marrying the daughter of the man who had claimed his brother’s life.

There would be no escaping it, of course. He had known he could not outrun his fate nor his father’s pact, yet nothing had prepared him for the sick feeling in his gut when finally presented with the reality of his destiny.

Arran tugged at his shirt. He felt choked for air. From the corner of his eye, he could tell Esme was watching in that sly way of hers. She tipped the rim of her glass toward him, then flicked the glass edge with her tongue and took a sip. Douglas and Ma were also watching, Douglas seated to his left, his mother to his right. She had stiffened beside him, and Douglas’s face was overcast in dark shadow.

Arran cleared his throat, awfully aware that he was ill-prepared for this news. The last thing he wanted was to make a scene at his own birthday feast. He turned to Pa with a tight smile. “What might ye be speaking o’, Faither?”

Of course, he knew exactly what his father was speaking of. The truth was staring him right in the face, even though he wished it ardently away, much like he had wished Bruce’s death away even as he held his pale, cold hand all those years ago.

“Yer betrothal, Arran,” his father confirmed as if Arran could have forgotten. “‘Tis time tae marry the MacKenzie lass.” Pa cleared his throat and downed a glass of water. Beside him, Arran could almost feel the unconstrained fury buzzing through his younger brother’s veins.

“I’m old, and ye’ve come o’ age, Arran,” said Pa. “The time for waiting is over. Ye ought to invite the lass to our keep by the end of the week. Our clans await a marriage, and we’ll give one tae them.”

“A marriage tae the woman whose faither murdered my brother,” said Arran through gritted teeth. He knew it was unseemly behavior to talk back to his father, especially in the midst of guests, but for once he couldn’t help himself.

Pa sighed. “A marriage tae cement peace and unity between two clans,” said Pa. “A bargain is a bargain.” He clasped his hand gently over Arran’s shoulder and said as convincing and fatherly a voice as he could muster, “This is yer part to play, son. Husband tae the MacKenzie lass, and future laird o’ our united clans.”

Albeit not overtly rudely, Arran shrugged off his father’s hand. He regarded his mother, who had a pleading look on her face. He hated to see Ma look so distressed. Her eyes begged him not to make a scene, begged him to listen to his father, to accept that which he could not change, to marry the MacKenzie lass.

Arran turned away from Ma. He couldn’t stand it any longer. His eyes locked on Douglas’ face, whose bushy eyebrows were knitted together, his face flush and ablaze with righteous fury, and something else as well, something that Arran recognized all too well. It was the same glint of desire that he caught in his own eyes when he looked in the mirror: vengeance.

He could almost hear his younger brother’s voice in his head: Remember our promise. Now is our chance.

Arran wrapped his hands over the nearest cup and downed it in a single gulp. His mind was a mess, swirling with a hundred thoughts and emotions, but the memory of his dream, of Bruce, drifting away with each step Arran took closer to him, burned at the back of his eyes. His promise echoed like church bells in his head. He caught a sly look on Esme’s face as he reached for Ma’s hand and squeezed it gently. Then, he leaned into Pa and said evenly, “I’m sorry, Pa. Yer right. I shall send for my future wife first thing tomorrow.”

The table erupted in light applause. The gatherers had been listening between their whispered discussions and clumsy silences.

“Oh, Arran, will ye now?” said Ma, gushing as she squeezed his hand back. “I’m so relieved tae hear it, son, so relieved.”

“Of course, Ma. I have my duties tae uphold, after all.” Duties of revenge, he thought, Duties to liberate his clan from subjugation.

“Indeed,” Sir Ian offered as he lifted his glass and raised another toast. “Tae the future laid!” A delicate pause took precedence, and then: “And his bride!”

“Tae the future laird and his bride!” The people in the hall chorused after him.

Arran returned his mother’s smile. Douglas was grinning too, Arran noticed, but he knew it was not for the same reason as all the others seated around the table.

His younger brother was not only toasting to his future laird. He was toasting to the death of the lass whose father had murdered their brother on a battlefield. He was toasting to the death of Arran’s future wife.

He was toasting to vengeance.

Arran raised his own glass and cheered. Their plan had been set in motion, and there was no going back now.

He would marry the MacKenzie lass.
He would kill her.
And finally, he would bring honor to his brother’s name.

CHAPTER TWO

Mother clapped her hands together as if fending off an enemy attack. “Nae, nae, certainly nae that!” she protested.

Lorna sighed and lifted her arms so that Mary Lou, her lady’s maid, could shrug the gown off of her body. It was the fifth gown she had tried on, good heavens, and the fifth gown of twenty her mother had laid out.

Lorna wanted to roll her eyes, but she resisted the urge. Patience had never been her strongest virtue, but she took in deep breaths and calmed herself. Then, when she thought Ma was no longer looking, she gestured to Mary Lou to sneak her bow and arrows into her travel trunk, as they had planned.

However, Ma, wise old Ma, turned around at the last moment. Her jaw almost fell to the ground in shock. “Certainly nae that, either! Heaven forbid!”

Lorna sighed again. She knew her mother would never agree to let her take her plaything, but she had wanted to try anyway.

She was never one to give up without a fight.

“Alright,” Lorna conceded, finally allowing herself to roll the eyes that had been begging to be rolled all morning. She motioned to Mary Lou to take her favorite weapon out of the box.

Mary Lou’s lips were pressed together as if to keep from smiling. “Her ladyship would rather walk on hot coals than let ye take them with ye,” she had said to Lorna moments before Ma had swirled through the door and joined them in her packing for their journey to the MacLean’s keep, which was set to be her new home. Mary had been right, of course. The only thing Ma disapproved of more than a woman with a bow and arrow, or any weapon really, was a drunk woman.

Across from Lorna, curled elegantly atop a heap of pillows, her sister Fenella was droning on about something that Lorna had since lost track of. She had begun by talking about her last journey through the highlands with the Duke of Emberton. Then, she had spoken of scarfed bandits and a miserable carriage ride. Or had it been a storm?

Whatever it was, Lorna had stopped listening by the time she had changed out of her third gown. She was too busy being exhausted and devising a way to take her bow and arrow without Ma’s knowledge.

Fenella huffed and clapped her hands together as if the draw her sister’s attention. “Yer nae listening to me, are ye?”

“Of course, I am,” Lorna lied. Then, she turned to Mary Lou, who had busied herself with packing her bags for their travel. “All the dresses except that violet,” she said to her maid.

That seemed to pique Ma’s interest. She raised her eyebrows in bewilderment. “Why ever not? The violet is lovely,” Lady MacKenzie stated.

Lorna exchanged a quick glance with Mary Lou, who was smoothing the crumpled lines of a wool coat and trying hard to stifle a smile. She shoved the bag further onto Lorna’s bed to keep it from falling from the edge.

Lorna had always secretly detested the violet dress with its too wide arms and too frilly hems, but she wore it because Pa liked it, and Pa liked it because Pa liked whatever Ma liked, even though she had hardly seen much of Pa in recent years.

Lorna wanted to groan in her disagreement. Instead, she gestured in Mary’s direction, signaling her to include the violet dress too. Ma, along with Fenella and her father, would be by her side for the trip, both journeying through the highlands with her and staying a while in her new home after the wedding. She knew she would be grateful for their company when the time came for holding her hands and encouraging her. Ma almost always knew how to make her feel less overwhelmed and less alone, being the good mother that she was. The least Lorna could do was take the violet dress that Ma wanted along with her, no matter how reluctantly.

All of Lorna’s life seemed to boil down to this moment: her becoming the bride of Arran MacLean, future laird of their both clans. Her whole life was about to change.

As if sensing the shift in her mood, Ma placed a light touch on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, my love?”

“Naething, Maither.” She shook her head. “Just thinking.”

“What about?” said Lady MacKenzie, and Fenella and Lorna exchanged meaningful glances.
Lorna deeply appreciated her connection with Fenella. They often spoke with their eyes without needing to part their lips.

“Alright, that’s our cue,” Fenella said then, ushering Mary Lou and herself out of Lorna’s chamber. She shut the door behind them.

When they were gone, Ma gathered up the silk hem of her dress and joined Lorna on the bed. Lorna was seated on edge, hands clasped together atop her knee. Ma scooped her shoulder in a lighthearted side hug. “Are ye scared, my dear?”

“Terrified,” Lorna confessed.

Ma tossed her head back in laughter. “So was I, on the eve o’ me wedding.”

Lorna let out a disbelieving scoff. “It’s nae the same, Ma.”

“O’ course it is.”

“Pa adores ye. Yer are both perfect together.”

Ma beamed, and Lorna rolled her eyes. There were very few things Ma enjoyed more than a compliment that rang with the truth.

“Yes,” she agreed, “But yer perfect too, and yer husband will adore ye.”

“Come now, Maither. It’s nae the same.”

“However could ye mean?”

“Ye and Pa! Ye knew each other yer whole lives, and ye certainly were in love before yer betrothal.”

“Aye, Lorna,” her mother conceded, “but it dinnae mean I was nae scared out o’ me brains because I was.” She stroked Lorna’s cheek. “My dear, ye’ve prepared all yer life for this. There is nae one in the country, and beyond more empowered tae bring peace and unity tae our clans than ye.”

Lorna nodded, but her mother’s words did not make her less terrified. If anything, they made her more terrified, knowing that she was alone in her destiny, that she was so unique, that she alone could marry the MacLean heir and bring lasting peace to both of their clans.

Anguish stabbed at Lorna’s chest like a blade. She did not know if she could do this.

Even if she had the strength to, she feared she wasn’t ready. She voiced out her inhibitions before she could stop herself. Ever since childhood, Lorna had always been one to speak her mind, despite being a girl. “What if I’m nae ready, Ma?” she said.

“Ye are, Lorna, more than ye even know. Trust in yer ma.” Her mother squeezed her hand encouragingly, but it did not stop Lorna from dwelling on everything that could go awry.

What if Arran MacLean took one look at her and hated the sight of her? What if she took one look at him and hated the sight of him? What if their intellects did not match? What if their spirits did not meet on the same plane? What then? Would she be expected to live out a life of dissatisfaction and misery in the name of bringing peace to her clan? in the name of fulfilling her life purpose?

Would giving up her life, her home, and her freedom be worth it?

Lorna wanted the best for herself and for her clan, but still, she could not help but worry.

Ma let go of her hand, then. She was smiling that motherly smile of hers, one that dazzled like a hundred candles and comforted Lorna all at once. “Lorna, yer more ready than ye could possibly imagine. Yer a MacKenzie, my dear. Fear not, for there is nothing we cannot do when we set our hearts tae it.”

“I hear ye, Ma,” Lorna replied. She allowed her shoulders to relax and released the tension from her back and jaw. She felt strengthened by her mother’s encouragement.

Still, a small part of her hummed with hesitation and uncertainty.

Lorna rose to her feet and continued packing where Mary Lou had left off.

“So long as yer a good wife,” Ma continued, smoothing down the beaded pearls sewn into the plate of fabric at her cleavage. Mother liked pretty and shiny things.

Lorna liked pretty things too, like her bow and arrows. She and her mother simply had differing definitions of what pretty meant, and sometimes she wished Ma simply accepted it.

“And he be a good husband,” countered Lorna.

“Lorna,” said her mother with a warning.

“What?” Lorna feigned innocence.

It was Ma’s turn to roll her eyes. “Lorna, I know that strong mind o’ yours, and it’s nae always a bad thing but ye must remember—”

“Nae always, eh?” Lorna retorted, but she was smiling.

Her mother waved a dismissive hand and said, “Ye know what I mean. Not everyone is as tolerating o’ an outspoken woman as we’ve been in this house, and ye know ye only get away with it because yer father is laird. I’m only saying, it will nae always be that way elsewhere.”

“I hear ye, Ma,” said Lorna, but Ma no longer had her gaze fixed on her. Ma was standing by the window, looking over the gardener who was hunched on his knees in the flower garden, digging holes and watering plants with his gloved hands and cap.

Lorna took in a slow, steady breath. Ma wasn’t looking. It was now or never.

As soundlessly as she could manage, she took out the violet dress and shoved it under her bed. Done! Ma’s head was still turned to the gardens, her eyes lost in the flowerbeds ten feet below her.

Next, Lorna reached for the bag containing her bow and arrows. Of course, Ma chose that moment to turn around. Lorna bit her tongue to keep from cursing. She released her grip on her bow and quickly shoved it aside before Ma’s eyes came to rest upon it.

Ma cocked her head and leveled Lorna a suspicious look. “Lorna—“ she began, but Fenella cut her short as she shoved the door open and swooped back in.

“Pa demands yer presence,” said Fenella.

Ma’s eyes turned up in surprise upon hearing Fenella’s words, and so did Lorna’s. Their reactions were not uncalled for, as over the years, Pa had morphed into a man of strict solitude, withered and tucked away in his chambers. He hadn’t demanded anyone’s presence in too long a while.

“Do ye mean that, Fenella?” Lorna asked, feeling dubious. It wasn’t beyond her younger sister to play a prank on her.

“Yes, golly,” said Fenella. “He sent a servant. I stopped him by the door and took a message for ye.” She crossed her legs and started to fan herself as a sly smile stole the corners of her lips. “I dinnae want him intruding on yer sacred marriage-bride talk,” she added, and Lorna made a face at her.

Fenella made a face right back. “So? What did ye two splendid ladies speak o’ in mine absence? What husbands disapprove o’ and from where babies come?”

“Fenella!” cried Ma, a hot flush of red spreading over her face. Lorna bit the inside corners of her cheeks to keep from laughing.

Fenella was a sweet, innocent girl at heart, but every so often, she took to scandalizing Ma for the fun of it.

Lorna did not scandalize Ma, or draw on her disapproval for the fun of it. If anything, she preferred to always get along with Ma, and she liked that they shared the same views on womanliness and being free-spirited, on husbands and marriages. It was rather quite unfortunate that Lorna had inherited Ma’s beauty and Pa’s too-strong mind.

Beside her, Ma fanned her face with her hand. Mary Lou was also stifling a grin at Fenella’s outburst.

Lorna smacked Fenella lightly on her thigh. “Ow!” Fenella yelled in lighthearted protest. “Yer going tae make babies someday,” she called after her. “Somehow.”
“Fenella!” cried Mother.

This time, Lorna couldn’t help it. Her shoulders shook as she laughed. “I’ll see tae Pa at once,” she said as she excused herself. She crossed out of the room, but not before whispering to Mary Lou, “Do try tae keep them from devouring each other before I’m back.”

Then, she stepped out of her chambers and shut the door behind her.

A servant was kneeling beside Pa as Lorna entered his chamber. The short lass pulled the sheets over Pa’s neck and shakily raised a glass of water to his lips. Pa gulped the water, then pushed the cup away.

“Excuse us,” he said in his deep rasping voice to the lass, who bowed and scurried out the door.

Lorna was left alone with her father. She smoothed her damp hands on the sides of her dress. She took the stool beside him. “How do you feel, Pa?”

Her father groaned something vaguely to himself, but he was smiling at her. He’d been down with a fever for a few days now, but even when Pa wasn’t sick, he remained tucked away, alone in the confines of his chamber or his study. His meals were brought up to him, and Lorna could count on her fingertips how many times a year she laid eyes on her father in private settings.

It was she had gotten away with pursuing boyish hobbies like throwing stones, carving her own catapults, and playing with her uncle’s swords: Pa had been too busy dwelling in his solitude to shun her misguided inclinations, too busy to stop her from sneaking out into the woods with her friends and practicing her self-carved bow and arrow.

Pa had not always been this way, she had heard, shrunken up and pale. He had once been a sweeping storm of a man, bright-eyed and strong-footed, commanding presence from even the most strong-headed of men. He conquered enemy villages. He defeated clans who rose up against them. Nobody knew why he had suddenly folded into a shadow of himself, but Lorna knew when it happened.

Things had soured roughly after his return from the battle with the MacLeans, twelve years ago or so, after her betrothal to the son of the MacLean laird. Twelve years ago, when her life’s purpose was decided for her: to be the bride of the future laird of their clans, to serve him and bear his children. The entire trajectory of her life had been altered in a single day, with a single decision.

Her life had never been the same since that day, but neither had Pa’s.

Now, Pa peeled the sheets from his chest and sat up straight. He reached for Lorna’s hand and squeezed with all the strength his bones could muster, which wasn’t much. “I feel strong as a mountain, dear lass,” he answered her at last, “finer than I was yesterday.”

It was his usual answer, what Pa always said when she or Fenella or Ma asked how he was feeling. Strong as a mountain, my love. Finer than I was yesterday. He would be saying it even in his grave, Ma had joked. Lorna smiled a little at her father’s resilience. It was one thing they had in common.

“Ye asked tae see me,” she said.

Pa cupped a hand over his mouth as a rack of coughs stole the words from him. Lorna filled an empty glass on his bedside table with water and lifted it to his mouth. Her grip was firm and steady. Pa’s sips were slow. After a moment, he gestured that he had had his fill, and Lorna put the glass away.

“How are yer preparations coming along?”

Despite feeling like a bundle of nerves about her upcoming journey, Lorna beamed. “Tis going well, Pa. We’re done packing, and the carriages are ready tae my knowledge.”

Laird MacKenzie nodded. “How do ye feel?”

Lorna’s chest heaved as she let out a heavy sigh. “More terrified than I’ve felt about anything else in my life.”

Lorna’s father lightly clasped his hand over hers. “There is naething tae fear, my dear.”

Lorna almost scoffed at that. “Except my soon marriage tae a man I’ve never met, that is.”

Father smiled at that. “Aye,” he agreed. “But fear is good too.”
“And how so, Faither?”

He had a faraway look in his eyes as he answered, “It helps us think deeply before we act.”

Lorna watched her father, the droop of his shoulders, the distant look on his face. “What do ye mean, Pa?”

Laird MacKenzie did not answer, only shook his head. He rubbed his chest, a trick he did to prevent more coughs from overcoming him. “Ye’ll be journeying with yer Ma and sister,” he finally said.

“Ma and Fenella and ye,” said Lorna. She did not mean to sound insistent, but there was a strange look on Pa’s face, and she feared what he might be saying, what he had yet to say.

“Ye will nae need me,” said laird MacKenzie.

Lorna clutched her father’s hand tighter than she meant to, then she let go. He was a frail old man, she did not want to compound his pain. “Pa, no.”

“I cannot journey with ye, Lorna. Not in this state. I’d slow ye down, and I dinnae want that for ye.” He patted her shoulder. “I trust ye and yer sister. I trust yer Ma to offer ye guidance and counseling when you need it the most.” He reached for her hands and clasped both of them in his. “But I know ye. I trust that ye will let wisdom, patience, and understanding lead the way. Unlike,” he said, then coughed lightly, “unlike me.”

“What do ye mean, Faither?” she said, but he only shook his head. “Whatever you do, do not let your emotions lead yer way, Lorna. Not hurt, not anger. Especially not anger.”

Lorna stayed awhile, offering Pa water when he coughed, listening to his words of advice. She was sometimes confused, but she let her father say all that he wanted to say without interruption.

Later, she would chew on his words. She would try to make better sense of them and deduct her own meaning, but for now, her father counseled her, and she listened. He wrapped her in a brief but not unaffectionate hug when he had said all that he had wished to say.

He cupped her face in his palms. “The destiny o’ our entire clan rests on yer shoulders now,” he said.

They were great words from a great man, and while they terrified Lorna, they also made her feel empowered and determined to live up to expectations.

Lorna would do right by her people and fulfill her purpose. She would come together in marriage with Arran of the MacLean clan in a union of peace and mutual respect.

So long, of course, as her future husband did not make this difficult for her.

 


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In Bed with a Highland Traitor (Preview)

Prologue

Kimelford, November 1715, Former Clan MacVarish Lands

The smell of woodsmoke was in the air as Edmund MacVarish looked up into the blue sky. An eagle cried and soared across the expanse of blue, putting hope into Edmund’s breast as he felt the hilt of his sword at his side. Battle was coming; The weight of his sword gave him strength and courage, reminding him of his duty.

Around him, the men were quiet, every muscle tensed and ready as the Crann Tara burned in his father’s hand. There were hundreds of them, five hundred at least, pulled from his clan and a nearby smaller one. It gave him some courage that so many young Highlanders were about him, all skilled with a blade. And yet, they did not know what numbers the English ranks held.

His father held the cross aloft, the flames licking higher and higher into the air. The cross reminded them to call their allies to arms. It was small, yet its image was clear—the cross of St. Andrew reminding everyone to fight to their utmost.

MacVarish banners blew in the wind as they stood on the enemy’s borders. Clan Rose would be there, wouldn’t they? The clans neighbored each other’s lands, lands the English had attempted to take from them through violence and bloodshed. This invasion was not to be borne—this ruination of a way of life.

“Keep yer heart, lad,” his father whispered to him, still lifting the cross. The smoke billowed and grew. “They will ken the sign and come tae fight for what is right. It is our way. Nae Highlander, worth his salt, would leave another clan tae death and destruction. Nae clan wants the English here.”

Edmund nodded, his bright blue eyes moving to his older brother Robert, who did not keep his attention on their father, the laird. They were all clearly kin, with matching black beards and hair blowing in the breeze. But Robert was more rotund and had a keener sense of leadership. Edmund envied him that, even at that moment. He wanted to be a hero, but Robert would do that for him. For them all.

Robert gazed into the distance at the approaching English, their stark red coats looking strange against the green pines and the blue November sky. Their muskets glinted under the sunlight, but Edmund held his ground. He was the younger son, but he would not falter that day.

“They are nae coming, Father,” Robert said. “We must march and fight. Forget Clan Rose.”

Edmund looked at the men behind them, kilted in MacVarish colors, long hair waving in the breeze, broadswords in their hands. Some gripped muskets, but they were far outnumbered by the English, who only drew nearer.

“Wait a moment,” his father said, and they waited. Edmund pulled his sword from his scabbard, the feel of it cold in his hand. Despite the time of year, it was a warm day, but an eerie, icy breeze blew over the land.

This could be the end of all things. We will either be victorious, or we will die.

He straightened up, trying to suppress his fear, as the English lifted their muskets.

“Father,” Edmund began, but his father held a hand. The only sounds were the bird cries, the trees rustling, the stretch of leather, and boots crunching over grass.
But then a shot fired, piercing the air with its harsh eruption. It zipped through the Highland army, piercing someone. A groan of pain echoed.

“They have nae come,” his father said, pulling his sword out and throwing the Crann Tara. “We must fight on our own merits. Me sons, ye are with me. Clan MacVarish! We fight for justice!” He held his sword out, made a battle cry, and rushed forward, his men behind him.

All was chaos and wildness. Edmund rushed forward to the mass of English soldiers.

Shots fired back and forth, but he swung his sword until it met flesh. A frenzy of panic and shouts fell over as they fought. Sweat covered his skin as the fatigue settled into his bones. The fight seemed endless.

His men, friends, and comrades fought alongside him, butut many fell, having received a blow from an English redcoat. Blood rang in his ears, blocking out all the other sounds of the battlefield. Time slowed, and everything blurred. As if he fought in a dream, he tried to understand the horror before him.

There are too many. Too many, his mind repeated like a constant drum.

But he kept fighting, kept going. He would do anything for Clan MacVarish, for the sake of his father and brother. It was his land and home, and they would have a new king whether England wanted it.

The field was strewn with men, and Edmund stood tall, catching his breath, as he saw his father and brother fighting soldiers. English soldiers swarmed them, knowing that they were the laird and the laird’s heir. Edmund jumped into action, racing to help, but he was too late. An Englishman plunged a sword into his father’s stomach, and Laird MacVarish fell to his knees with a groan.

“Nae!” Edmund cried aloud, the sound ripping from his throat. His father was the best warrior he knew. He had taught him everything since he took his first steps. Edmund was almost there. So close. Fury took over. He swung at his father’s killer and cut him down.

Others still fought against Robert, now coated in sweat and tiring.

“I am coming, brother!” Edmund called through gritted teeth, hitting his way through to his brother’s opponents. He cut down one, then another, but Fate turned cruel that day. Robert fell to his knees, an English blade impaling his chest.

Robert fell back, his lifeless eyes facing upward to the sky. Enraged, Edmund fought against the rest of them, only able to fell two. There was nothing but pain in his heart. The last English raised his sword and cut Robert’s head from his body.

Frozen in shock, his stomach writhed, and he collapsed. His brother’s murderer rushed toward him. But like a trapped, wild animal, Edmund drove a dagger into the English dog’s chest. The soldier crumpled. Red blood like his coat deepened with crimson blood.

“The battle is won! The laird is dead. No more need to waste time,” An English Captain shouted. “Put down your weapons. Take the rest as prisoners. We need something to show the general and tell the king.” Even though sweat and blood dripped into Edmund’s eyes, he saw the sneer on the man’s lips.

An acrid taste filled his mouth as the English gathered the remaining Scottish fighters. He had only a little time. Though Robert was dead, he needed to find his father. He crawled across the field, moving out of the way of English and Scottish bodies. If his father drew breath, he needed to be there. The laird should not die alone, not surrounded by English. Edmund was not yet ready to be without him. He was young, too green to lead their people.

He found his father still breathing, his hand clutching his stomach. With relief and tears, Edmund moved to him. “Father, ye are still here. Ye must forgive me. We failed. They are taking us away.”

“Nae, me lad. Ye have done well this day.”

Their men continued to rail against the English despite the commander’s words. They did not give up. Edmund’s eyes remained on his father. Nothing else mattered now that he would lose the ones he loved.

He reached for his father but was stopped.

“Nae,” the laird whispered, “I donnae have time, Edmund. Ye must live tae fight for us, tae fight back against the traitors who didnae come for us. Clan Rose must pay for what they have done. If they were here, we wouldnae have lost.” His father grimaced as he spoke. It was too much effort as he began to fade.

Hot tears brimmed in Edmund’s eyes; his father slipped away, his face paling from the blood loss. “I swear it, Father. I willnae rest until me vengeance is taken upon Clan Rose.”

“Good. Good. I leave Clan MacVarish tae ye…I ken yer brother is nae with us any longer…I shall go tae meet him in Heaven.”

“Nae, Father. Donnae leave me like this.”

“Go, lad. Be strong. And remember yer vow. Tell yer mother I think of her at the last-”

As his father took his last breath, hard hands gripped Edmund’s arms, lifting him to his feet and dragging him away. With grief and pain in his heart, Edmund threw his head back and screamed to the Heavens for what God had wrought that day.

Chapter 1

July 1717, Fort William

“Dear God, I cannae believe it is real. I can see the sky, can feel the breeze.”
Edmund’s friend and former man-at-arms, Gleason, looked at the sky. They walked through Fort William’s gates, out to a group of horses, saddled and ready.

“We have seen the sky, Gleason. These two years. We have felt the breeze.”

He didn’t want to think about happiness, even though the English had pardoned the rest of the living Jacobite rebels, and they were sending them home.

Gleason shook his head. “We havenae seen the sky but through bars, and we havenae felt the breeze unless it was mixed with the stench of death, piss, and blood. Donnae say that ye arenae happy tae breathe this air.”

Edmund narrowed his eyes at his old friend. They had shared a prison cell within the fort’s walls for the past two years. Gleason had long red hair, a thick beard, pale and gaunt features from lack of food and confinement. Together, they had been beaten, starved, and forced to listen to their friends being tortured. They had been imprisoned with others guilty of the same crime. The other rebels were executed over the years, but for some reason, Edmund and a few of his clansmen were spared. He had his suspicions as to why; he often wondered if their captors intended to ransom them at some point, but to this day, he did not know the whole truth.

Still, they endured tortures of their own, and Edmund bore numerous scars, but the cries of pain and suffering of others hurt more. Others who had fought for the same cause and failed as he had done. Each day only brought the painful memory that his brother and father were dead. And now he was to return home if there was still a home to return to as Laird MacVarish.

“The air is cleaner. I will give ye that.” He jumped astride the horse given to him, and his body remembered the motion. However, he was not as strong as he had been once.

“As soon as we are returned home,” Gleason said, “I will drink as much ale as I can fit intae me belly.”

“Aye, there will be a feast if there is a home, tae return tae.”

His small group only numbered five. From five hundred to five, all slain. Only five of the MacVarish men survived that fateful battle when the English had squashed the rebellion.

No soldiers came up to them. Only the guards to the fort watched them from afar, lingering suspicions. The general of the fort had let them go, telling them that they’d been lucky.

With the soldiers’ eyes on him, Edmund spat on the ground.

“Come, then, lads, let us leave this cursed place. In all me life, I never wish tae see another Englishman again.” He felt light with the lack of weapon at his side as they turned to leave, but that was also down to the English.

Disarming the Highlanders to keep them docile had been the intent and was now written into law, but Edmund swore to himself that he would hold a weapon in his hands again.

He would hold and wield it against his enemies for one final time to get his revenge.

His horse’s hooves rumbled underneath him as they headed south to Kimelford. He would once again see the sea, and as soon as he was home again with his mother and countrymen, he would make his plans for vengeance.

They rode for hours. He wouldn’t have noticed his need for food or drink until one of his men waved to him, pointing to a river ahead. He nodded and slowed the gait of his horse, feeling the ache in his arms at last from holding tight to the reins. When he jumped down, he led his horse to the water, and he sat down next to it, dipping his hands into the cool water.

He washed his face and then drank, letting the water quench his thirst.

“Ye are quiet, my Laird,” one of his men, Angus, said.

Edmund swung around, anger in his eyes. “Donnae call me that,” he snapped, wiping his wet hands on his dirtied kilt. “At least nae yet. There may be nae land tae go tae.

Nae castle tae return tae and nae place tae lay down our heads.” His voice was softer this time. Angus nodded and turned away.

Edmund chastised himself for his curtness. It was just happening all too fast, and he felt powerless against the wave of one change to the next. Prison had broken him, and he would return home a changed man. Gone was the innocence he had before battle when he’d still felt young and green, even at twenty-five. At twenty-seven, he was ancient.

Each scar on his skin told a story, reminding him why happiness wasn’t possible. There was only vengeance on his mind. That was his plan. If he could take his revenge upon Clan Rose, he could finally die a happy man. Or at least a satisfied and vindicated one.

Gleason approached him, holding out a hunk of bread. “Those English bastards gave us bread for the journey.” He gave him a great smile.

Edmund ripped off a piece. “Ye mean ye stole it?”

“Of course. They have freed us, but they would have wanted us tae starve along the way. I’m surprised they even let us keep the clothes on our backs.”

“For what good they’re doing.” Edmund looked down at his tattered appearance. The clothes he wore were the very ones he’d on that day in battle, and they were barely holding on. “We will bathe at Castle MacVarish.” He had hope for the first time in a long while.

“Aye, bath and ale and food. For as far as the eye can see. That is me greatest wish,” Gleason said, chewing on his piece of bread.

Mumbled ayes moved around the other men as they sat and ate what little they had between them. Edmund looked at the gaunt faces around him, the hollow expressions, the thick beards, and the long hair. Even if he didn’t want the title of laird to his name, it was his now. He would have to lead, even if the only things left to him were these men.

“We can get there by dark if we ride hard. There is nae point tae resting overnight unless the horses need it. But it is only twenty or thirty more miles from here. We can make it.”

The men nodded but said nothing. He would have their allegiance; he was sure of that.

But he was unsure if he had the strength to lead, knowing what had come before him.

After they rested, they rode on, only stopping once more before their tired horses rode into MacVarish land. His heart leaped with joy and relief when he saw the MacVarish castle was still standing.

He slowed as he approached, watching the torchlights flicker on the castle walls.

There were men about, but not as many as in his father’s day. Thinking of his mother, he hoped and prayed that she still lived and that grief had not taken her. As they got closer, he saw that people had gathered outside the castle gates.

Edmund’s heart was in his throat as he turned to Gleason, his friend’s pale face illuminated in the torchlight. “Here we are, old friend. It is a new beginning,” he said, feeling tears prickle at his eyes.

He stopped the horse and jumped down. Spying his mother, Freya, just ahead, he rushed forward as fast as his tired legs could carry him. His mother cried out as she ran to him, and they embraced tightly, his mother’s tears of joy wetting his shoulder as she gripped him tightly and wouldn’t let him go.

“I thought ye would never come home, Edmund,” she said. “God has brought ye tae me.”

Finally, when she pulled away, she held his face in her hands. She cried harder. “Ye are much changed,” she said, “but ye are whole.” Her hands traveled down his arms as if feeling him to make sure.

“Aye, Mother, I am whole in body.”

Nae in spirit.

“Edmund,” a deep voice said, coming from his mother’s side. He turned to see Murdoch, an old, wizened warrior, looking at him with a happy expression. “Welcome home, lad.”

He opened his arms. They embraced, and when they stepped back, Murdoch said, “Thank God yer back, Laird MacVarish. We have been waiting a long time for ye. Come, eat, and rest. All of ye. Ye are at last at home.”

***

The following day, Doreen Rose was packing furiously. Her heart pattered away in her chest as she tried to take stock of everything. Finally, she was leaving, and she didn’t want to forget anything. Pushing her red hair out of her face, she pulled a few books off the bookshelf and put them in the trunk. She wiped a tear away, angry with herself that she was crying.

Was she not happy to leave? Of course, she was, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure what reception she’d receive at home. Nor did she know if she’d have a place there any longer. Guilt and sorrow filled her breast, and she sat down, feeling like the tears would choke her.

A few deep breaths later, she closed her eyes, remembering the past. Her husband, Lord Henry Johnson, had been a terrible man, full of hatred and violence towards others. At least he had not hurt her, but he’d been despicable to anyone who got in his way. He was a drunkard, gleeful about the suffering and pain of others, and she’d been overjoyed when his death came to pass. It had almost seemed too good to be true because she feared that her life’s plan was set forever, living in England with this beast of a man.

But ye did it tae save yer clan.

Doreen sniffed and stood again, busying herself with more packing. Sometimes, she felt guilty for bemoaning her fate. She had saved her clan from ruin and execution, and she was given wealth and comfort as she’d never experienced before. But there was one thing she didn’t have: her family, and she hadn’t seen them since her marriage two years earlier. She had no idea what might have befallen them, and now that she was free to leave, she had to see them again to ensure that they were safe.

So many of her own kin had died at his hand, so she’d married him. To keep it from continuing. But while her clan was safe, they were seen as traitors to the Highlanders. While she could understand that name of traitor that had been put upon their good name, she wondered what other option she would have had. Would death for her clan and all her people have been preferable?

Doreen was so lost in her thoughts as she packed up the things that she didn’t hear the soft knock at the door. When she turned around, she jumped when she saw a man in the doorway.

“Och, it is ye, Oliver.”

“Forgive me, Doreen,” he said with a handsome smile, shutting the door behind him as he came into the room. “I did not mean to startle you.” He looked around the room. “I only meant to come and see if you needed anything. I cannot believe that you are leaving.”

She put her hands on her hips, trying to stop the trembling in her hands.

“I ken. It is a strange thing, after all this time.” She smiled. It was easy to smile around Oliver, Lord Henry’s younger brother. He was good-looking, with pulled-back long blond hair and kind blue eyes. He had always been gentle with Doreen, listening to her woes and speaking from the heart. He was the opposite of his elder brother, and they had become friends.

“Are you sure about this, Doreen? You do not have to leave. This is your home. You are Lady Johnson. As the widow, you can stay here, and I will take care of you.”

“No, Oliver. I thank ye, but that cannae be. I need tae go home and see me, family.
Yer brother has kept me from them long enough and has starved me of news of them. I have tae see how they fare. What was all this if nae for them?”

Oliver sat down on one of the wooden chairs in Doreen’s bedroom. He folded his hands on his lap, wearing a serious expression.

“But as you have told me before, your family will be considered traitors for marrying into an English family. What kind of homecoming can you expect?”

Doreen bit the inside of her cheek, not wanting to cry. While Oliver had been kind to her, Doreen still didn’t want to show weakness in front of men. Weakness fed them, especially men as vile as her husband had been.

“I ken it, Oliver,” she said sharply. She knew Oliver meant well, but she was tired of being restrained and confined. “It is nae from me own clan that I will feel the hatred. They are grateful that our lives and well-being were saved. That me people were allowed tae remain upon their land. But it is from other clans. We will nae longer have welcome amongst other people, and other villages. Especially nae Clan MacVarish.”

“Will you at least write to me? To tell me that you have arrived and that you are safe?”

Doreen smiled. Even if her family had not been around, Oliver had cared for her well enough.

“Aye, so I will. Donnae worry. I will write tae ye as often as I can.”

“How long will ye go?”

“I donnae ken. But donnae wait for me tae return, lad. I need tae find me own path and future now. I need tae heal from the past. Me family and I all do.”

He nodded. Looking saddened, he stood, digging at something in his coat. He pulled out a letter and handed it to her. It was thick. Doreen’s breath caught as she stared down at it. Slowly, her fingers took it up, pressing on what was inside.

Oliver shrugged.“I hope this will help you in your new future. You will be greatly missed, Doreen. By everyone. The servants and the other household members were happy to have you so near.”

“And I’m sure that they will soon have a new lady of the house tae assist them. Ye may marry and have a happy, new life.”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “What woman does not want a rogue like myself?”

“Exactly.” She put the pile of money down on the bed and embraced him. She leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “Ye are a good man, Oliver. I thank ye for everything that ye have done. And I thank ye for this.”

“You are most welcome. Now,” he said, looking around, “are you ready? The carriage is waiting for you. Say the word, and I will send the men to your room to help you carry things down.”

“Aye, ye may go and send for them. I will remain here just to think for a little. In case I have missed something.”

“Of course.” He kissed her hand and left. In the silence, Doreen turned around, searching the chamber that had been her haven during her marriage.

“It is time,” she said to the room, and with another look back, she left, ready to face the path ahead.

Chapter 2

A nearby forest of trees hid a shadow that day, and Doreen was entirely unaware of its presence as she left her dead husband’s home for good. While her thoughts were toward the future and for her family home that she hadn’t seen in years, there were others whose eyes and thoughts were firmly focused on her as she rode away.

A hooded man in black held the reins of his dark horse tight as he watched Doreen Rose departing in a carriage from Lord Johnson’s large home. He was tall and looming, and even though it was the afternoon, darkness hung around him, heavy and thick. A large bevy of soldiers on horseback trailed behind Doreen’s carriage. He counted their number casually, making plans. The hooded man pulled back under the nearby trees, his two riders behind him doing the same to keep it secret and safe. His beady eyes kept a close watch, and he made a low sound in his throat. They all looked on as the carriage left the road attached to the house, turning north towards Scotland, and he grunted again.

Cold, hard eyes watched the path of the black carriage, anger settling in his breast.

His shoulders and wrists flexed as he held the reins even tighter. The black horse stomped its foot, eager to move on. As the carriage drove further away, he barely turned his head and said, “It is time,” a low, deep voice filled with menace. He turned to the riders behind him and nodded, “Let them know.”

The two riders turned and rode off without a word, their black cloaks and black horses melding into one as they disappeared through the trees.

***

Edmund felt his mother’s hand wrap around his arm as they stared at the graves of his father, brother, and the men who had fallen that day on the outskirts of his land. “I have come every day since, foolishly hoping tae find yer father alive and well, waiting for me with a smile.” She sniffed, and Edmund’s eyes filled with tears as he looked at the graves built for his father and brother.

“I am glad they are buried close by,” he said stiffly, “nae taken by the Englishmen.” He shuddered, remembering how the one English soldier had cut off his brother’s head, a smug look of satisfaction on his face as he did it.

“They left everything that day,” she said. “Murdoch and the young guards at the castle took the bodies and gave them a proper burial. We have prayed for their souls each day for the good work they have done. It is good tae see that many survived. More than I expected or heard.”

Edmund gritted his teeth. He wasn’t sure what good work they’d done, for it had failed because of Clan Rose. “Clan Rose will pay for this, Mother. They are why Father and Robert are buried in the ground and nae here with us.”

“But ye are here, me son,” she said, leaning her head against him. “God has shown some mercy tae us at long last.”

Edmund had given up thoughts of God long ago, but he said nothing. His mother’s heart had been broken too many times already. He would not be the one to break it again with his words of blasphemy.

“Murdoch has done well in yer place, but I ken that it has worn on him. He doesnae feel worthy.”

“Neither do I. The position was never meant tae pass tae me. Robert was always the better one. Better suited for battle, for lairdship.” Tears were falling silently down his cheeks. He made no sound, just fixed his eyes forward, unable to look at his mother.

“Donnae say such things, Edmund. Ye are loved, and ye have everything ye need tae be the laird yer father was, and yer brother would have been. They are looking tae ye now, tae take their place and lead with all the strength and courage already within ye.” She patted his hand. “I ken it.”

Edmund couldn’t agree with his mother, but her words were well-meant. She pulled away from him. “I will leave ye with them, me son,” she said softly, her eyes flicking over the graves. “It is important tae grieve properly. Or else it will lay heavily in yer breast forever. I donnae want that for ye.” With one last lingering touch of her hand on his, she was gone, and he could hear her footsteps on the dirt path leading back to the castle. They faded into the distance, and he sank to his knees, giving vent to his grief in full, the sobs coming hard and fast.

Tears fell onto the ground that held his family. He placed his hands on the ground, wishing that he could bring them back to life by mere touch. It would make his guilt go away at long last, the guilt of not being able to help them that had rotted away in his breast ever since that fateful day.

“I am sorry,” he said as he let his tears run, and his mind turned to revenge. He could not bring his father and brother back, but he could do this for them. “I swear it again, Father, Robert, I willnae rest until vengeance is taken upon Clan Rose for their cowardice and refusal tae help. It is me life’s goal. Yer deaths will be avenged, and ye may rest in peace.”

His oath floated away on the breeze, and after a bit, he left for the castle, no turning back. Inside the castle, he checked on his men, and then he walked to his father’s study. It was the one place in the castle solely the laird’s. When he entered, he held his breath as he had done when he was a young boy, coming to ask his father about something foolish.

When he shut the door behind him, he felt the weight of his new responsibility on his shoulders. The room was exactly the way that he remembered. The desk was in the center of the room, with a window behind it, facing out towards the loch and the sea beyond.

Shelves of books and other things flanked the desk, and there was a large hearth on the right side of the room. A table with whiskey and glasses stood nearby, along with chairs made of leather and fur rugs on the floor.

His fists clenched and unclenched as he began to walk around, looking at the shelves, the papers on the desk, the decanters of whiskey. He closed his eyes and breathed in.

It even smelled the same as it always had. Even though he was frightened, with fear and unease in his heart, the smell gave him courage. It made him think of his father’s words, “Being afraid means nothing, lad. It is what ye do when ye feel the fear that matters.”

He filled a glass of whiskey and then slowly sat down in the chair behind the desk, imagining his father sitting there years before. He had to push beyond the fear, as he had been taught to do in battle, and he had to be the laird that his father would have wanted. After drinking the whiskey in one gulp, he slid his hands over the desk’s wood, his mind still catching up with him and his new place in the world.

He had to think of a way to get his revenge. It was his first order of business as the new Laird MacVarish. Leaning back in his chair, he remembered what Murdoch had told him the day before at a well-deserved dinner for him and his newly arrived men. Edmund had mentioned Clan Rose, and Murdoch said they were keen to add to their number of warriors.

It sounded odd to him at the time because no one knew why they were sending out for more. Clan Rose was one of the more well-known clans for their skills in battle. And that was why his father had called upon them to join in the fight against the encroaching English. But the clan had not reduced in number because they hadn’t come to his family’s aid when called for. So why seek new warriors?

“Perhaps I will be a soldier, coming tae their aid, since they are in such need of them.” He spoke aloud to himself, steepling his fingers together, then chewed on the inside of his cheek as he thought. It had been years since he’d been imprisoned, so he was not likely to be recognized by anyone in the clan. Besides, even though his mother had begged him yesterday after dinner, he refused to shave and cut his hair.

That morning, he had only allowed the servant to trim his beard back a bit, and he would tie the long, black hair back when needed. But he preferred his appearance this way, rough and scarred, carrying the memories, reminding him of what his future needed to be. A soft knock at the door roused him from his plans.

“Aye?” he said, leaning forward to push a few papers aside. He folded his hands on the desk.

Slowly, his mother peeked her head around the door, and she smiled when she saw him behind the desk. However, it was a slightly sad smile, as if something didn’t meet with her approval.

“Is it too strange for me tae be in the room, Mother? I could ask for another study tae be prepared if ye would prefer.”

“Nae, nae at all,” she said, sitting across from him, her eyes still assessing him. “I think ye look very fine there. It suits ye.”

Even as she spoke, tears filled her eyes, and his heart ached at the sight. She lifted a hand when he tried to speak again.

“Edmund, I need tae ken something. I ken that ye didnae tell me, and I shouldnae ask further about it, perhaps, but I need tae ken. Murdoch gave me the impression that ye might seek revenge upon Clan Rose for what they did.”

Edmund lifted a brow. While he hadn’t said that outright to the old man, he supposed it had been evident in the angry way he spoke about Clan Rose.

“Aye, that is me plan.” He nearly asked if she had a problem with it, but he refrained, not wishing to be rude to the last remaining member of his family. He would treasure still having his mother for as long as he lived.

“Thank you for being honest. I appreciate that.” Quickly, she wiped a fallen tear with the back of her hand and turned her intelligent green eyes on him. Even after all she’d been through, his mother still looked impossibly young and bright. There was an aura of general sadness about her, but it didn’t take away from her beauty. “Must you?” she asked in a much quieter voice. He could see the muscles tighten in her neck as if it took all her energy to ask him.

“I can see nae other possible way for me tae move on from what happened, Mother. I must avenge their deaths. It is the way of a warrior. Ye werenae there. Ye didnae see….” He stopped himself before he hurt his mother any longer with a description of the battlefield and the violent loss of her husband and son.

“I understand. It makes sense for you tae want tae do something. I cannae imagine what ye have suffered, me dear boy.” She wiped another tear and stood. “But I hope that ye willnae do anything too dangerous and that ye will be soon home.”

“I plan tae send meself as a warrior tae Clan Rose. Murdoch told me they are in need, and I will go. It is suspicious, as if they are planning some sort of attack. It will be the best way tae infiltrate them. Perhaps even stop whatever they are planning.”

She nodded again, looking more solemn. He hated to hurt her, but there was no other way around it. He needed to take his vengeance and help his father and brother rest in peace at long last.

To help assuage the guilt he felt at making her worry about him, he said, “Mother, I havenae been able tae give ye this message for two years. But I was with Father when he died.” He could feel his throat thickening at the memory, but he had to get the words out. His mother deserved to know. “He wanted me tae tell ye that he thought of ye at the last breath.”

He watched as a pained, yet happy expression crossed his mother’s face.

“Thank ye, Edmund. I will treasure that forever. I will see ye at dinner.”

Edmund looked at the door for a little while after she left, then took a pencil and scribbled on one of the papers on his desk. He would leave as soon as possible for Clan Rose, and then maybe, just maybe, he could find that sweet release from the guilt that hung on him. He might yet find freedom.

 


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