Sweet Highland Revenge (Preview)
The bells tolled, ending evening prayers and calling the Brothers to supper. It was a low, resonant sound that reverberated through Ronan’s bones and down into his soul as he watched the rest of the monks file out of the chapel. Father Ninian, the head of their order, was Ronan’s mentor and closest friend at the monastery. He paused before him, laying his hand gently on his shoulder.
Ninian was an older man with a ring of iron-gray hair and a grizzled beard of the same color. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was pudgy, affable, and one of the smartest men Ronan had ever met. He enjoyed their long intellectual and philosophical conversations, never failing to learn something, or gain some new perspective every time they talked.
“I’ll make sure yer food is kept warm,” Ninian said.
“Thank ye, Faither.”
“Are ye doing all right, Ronan?”
He nodded. “Aye. I’m doin’ just fine. Why dae ye ask?”
Ninian shrugged. “Ye’ve been quieter than usual lately.”
A wry smile curled his lips upward. “Ye’ve just given me a lot tae think about.”
The older man looked at Ronan closely for a moment but then nodded and gave him a smile. Ronan could tell that Ninian didn’t quite believe him but had the good sense not to push him. Though Father Ninian encouraged him to talk – to unburden himself, he never forced Ronan to reveal anything. He gave him the time and space he needed, and the best thing from Ronan’s perspective was that Ninian didn’t push religion on him.
He knew it was an odd thing to say, given that he was living at Airnred Monastery, an initiate of a religious order. But he hadn’t come to the monastery following the call of God. Not directly. He came to Airnred because he needed to change his life, and it seemed as if the monastery offered him the best chance of doing that. He was still trying to come around to living a life based on a faith he’d been ambivalent to his whole life.
“Whatever it is that’s botherin’ ye, if ye cannae tell me, tell God, lad,” Father Ninian added gently, “Even if ye think he’s nae listenin’, take me word for it… he is. He always listens.”
“I will, Faither. Thank ye,” Ronan said.
Ninian remained for a moment, then nodded as if to himself before turning to join the Brothers at their meal.
“Be sure tae eat somethin’ tonight, lad. We’re nae takin’ vows of starvation here,” Ninian called over his shoulder as he walked out of the chapel.
Ronan smirked as the older man walked out. As an initiate, he didn’t take his meals with the others and was left alone to clean things up. He would get to eat later － alone in the kitchens. Ronan knew his situation was different. He was not like the other initiates who had followed the call of God to Airnred. Sensitive to that, Ninian did what he could to protect Ronan as he took his journey, uncertain where it would lead him. Even after all this time.
Ninian felt that limiting his exposure to the other initiates was the best way to protect him － and them, of course. Ronan knew Father Ninian couldn’t have him blending with the regular initiates. Not until he’d decided on his true path. Ronan understood that, of course. He didn’t want his lack of belief to rub off on the other initiates, making them question themselves as he did. But he also thought it sometimes made for a very lonely existence. There were times he felt more like a wraith moving about the halls of Airnred than an actual person.
He wanted to give himself over to this life. To be a man of service and devotion. Ronan wanted to belong. He wanted to believe as they did. But in the couple of years with the Brothers, he’d yet been able to give himself over to the faith completely. He was holding himself back and didn’t know why. Faith and his reluctance to fully embrace it had been the subject of many long conversations with Father Ninian over his time here.
Stepping through the door, he stood on the porch, looking across fields of green and to the loch beyond. The sun was slipping toward the horizon, casting the sky in fiery shades of orange and red that reflected vibrantly off the glassy surface of the water.
He breathed in deeply, savoring the fresh, clean air around him. Airnred nestled in the foothills of the Highlands, surrounded by forests as far as the eye could see. It always smelled of wildflowers and the thick earthy musk and pine of the woods. The world around him was quiet. Peaceful. And it was in moments like that when he felt in harmony with the world, felt the closest to God. Certainly far more than in the chapel with the other Brothers of the order.
Suddenly, the front door of the chapel crashed open and gave Ronan a start. He turned and dashed inside, just in time to see a figure staggering through the doorway. The stranger, a man, knocked the benches askew as he crumpled to the floor with a loud grunt. Ronan ran to the man and rolled the stranger onto his back. Even through the mud and blood that covered the man’s face, Ronan recognized him instantly, a gasp passing his lips.
“Conall, what’s happened tae ye?” Ronan asked, “Cousin, what’s happened?”
Conall groaned incoherently, teetering on the edge of consciousness. Looking around the chapel, Ronan saw he was still alone. With the other Brothers at their meal, nobody had seen Conall enter. Knowing he had to help his kin, Ronan lifted the man in his arms and hurried him to the dormitory.
Ronan’s cell was in a little-used wing of the dormitory, well away from the other initiates. He laid Conall down on the straw-covered pallet in the cell next to his, then quickly started a fire in the small pit in the center of the room. The shadows and flames flickered and writhed upon the walls, locked in their eternal war, but the warmth from the fire quickly chased off the encroaching chill.
That done, he quickly ran down to the infirmary, fetching a basin and jug of water, a few clean bandages, towels, and jars of medicinal herbs, and returned back to the cell. Stripping Conall of his clothing, he washed away the grime and blood, searching for wounds.
Most were superficial, merely cuts and bruises, though he thought the slice along the ribs was worrisome. To Ronan, it looked like Conall had been knocked around pretty well, and he quietly hoped his cousin had given as good as he’d gotten. He knew it wasn’t a very Godly thought to have, but Ronan couldn’t help it; he could run from his roots, but he couldn’t run from his nature.
“Ronan, what is this? Who is this man?”
Father Ninian’s voice startled him, and Ronan jumped to his feet, quickly turning around. The older man’s brow was furrowed, an expression of concern etched into his features. Ronan swallowed hard.
“This is me cousin, Conall,” he said softly.
“What happened tae him?”
Ronan shook his head. “I daenae ken, Faither. He just showed up like this. Collapsed in the chapel. I couldnae turn him away.”
“Nae. Of course nae. We cannae turn away a man in need. But what does this mean? Why is he here?”
“I daenae ken what it means, but I reckon ‘tis nae good.”
On the pallet, Conall stirred restlessly, murmuring unintelligibly. Ronan knelt beside the pallet and took his cousin’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. Conall’s eyes fluttered and then opened, and for a brief moment, he looked fully in control of himself again.
“Conall. Cousin. What’s happened. Why are ye here?”
Conall’s eyes locked onto Ronan’s, his gaze burning with intensity.
“Tis yer faither, Ronan,” he said, his voice raspy and weak, “He’s killed me faither. Tried tae kill me. He’s taken control of the clan.”
As if the act of speaking took a physical toll, Conall slumped back against the pillows, his breathing labored, his face pale and drawn. As his eyes closed, Ronan was left with a growing sense of dread. If what Conall was saying was true, the worst had come to pass.
But he couldn’t worry about anything other than trying to help his cousin recover. If Conall had to flee Belwich, the seat of their clan’s power, Ronan knew that things were bad for his cousin. Especially in light of his injuries. Though none seemed overly serious, the three-day ride to Airnred wouldn’t have helped things.
“His wounds are nae mortal. But if he takes an infection, he could die. I’ve done all I can for him,” Ronan said, feeling woefully inadequate.
“Then he is in the hands of God now,” Father Ninian added softly.
“Aye. That he is.”
The older man laid a gentle hand on Ronan’s shoulder, full of sympathy and concern.
Father Ninian gave him leave from his normal duties, and for the next four days and nights, Ronan cared for his cousin, rarely leaving his side. Conall did not wake but flitted between bouts of fitful sleep and incoherent consciousness.
Ronan continued to care for Conall, cleaning his wounds, changing his bandages and poultices regularly, and prayed. He wasn’t sure that anybody was listening or that his words would be heeded, but he prayed nonetheless. Ronan figured that it couldn’t hurt, and at that moment, he needed all the help he could get. More than that, Conall needed it.
He and Conall were more than cousins. They’d grown up together and were more like brothers. Conall was heir to the clan’s Lairdship, and they’d grown up thinking Ronan would be his First Sword, the Laird’s personal protector. They believed they would usher in a golden age for the clan. Their plans had been bold and brash. They had been so young… so foolish.
“How is he doin’?”
Father Ninian stepped into the cell and set a tray of food on the table. Ronan had been so busy caring for Conall that he hadn’t been taking his meals, so Father Ninian brought them to him.
“His fever seems tae have broken,” Ronan replied, “I’m optimistic that he’ll recover. Cautiously optimistic.”
The older man looked over Conall for a moment, then took a seat across the table, and they sat in silence for a while. Ninian looked pointedly at the tray, then up at Ronan.
“Ye need tae eat, lad,” he said, “Ye won’t dae yer cousin a lot of good if ye pass out from hunger, eh?”
Ronan chuckled softly but conceded the point and tucked into his food, tearing off chunks of crusty bread and dipping it into the stew. Father Ninian let him eat in silence for a few moments; the only sound the crackle and pop of the fire in the pit.
“Why have ye let me stay here all this time, Faither? At the monastery? I’ve never taken me vows in all this time, and yet, ye’ve never forced me tae take them or move on. Why?”
A wry smile touched the older man’s lips. “Ye dae good work around here, lad. Ye work twice as hard as many of the other initiates. Tis hard tae find good help.”
“There’s got tae be more tae it than that, eh?”
Ninian looked at him for a long moment, and judging by the expression on the older man’s face, Ronan could see there was indeed more. So he settled back in his seat, took a sip of the watered wine, and waited. Ninian finally heaved a sigh and leaned forward on the table.
“Ye were a lad in trouble when ye arrived. Ye were runnin’ from somethin’, that was easy tae see. In most ways, ye still are runnin’ from somethin’. Yer past, I’d have tae guess,” Ninian said, “But I could see that ye were a man searchin’ for somethin’ too. Searchin’ for somethin’ bigger than ye. Ye seemed tae be searchin’ for meanin’ and purpose. I’ve hoped all along that ye’d find it here. In fact, I still believe that ye can. But only if ye actually cut ties with what ye’re runnin’ from.”
“Cut ties, Faither?”
“Aye. Ye’re a man straddlin’ two worlds right now. The world here at Airnred, and the world ye left behind when ye came here. There’s goin’ tae come a time when ye’ll need tae choose one or the other. Otherwise, ye’re goin’ tae be stuck in this in-between world ye’re existin’ in, never movin’ forward in yer life.”
Ronan fell silent as he absorbed Ninian’s words. He couldn’t help but hear the ring of truth in them. He had felt trapped in a world between worlds and could never find a way out of it. Now, as he listened to Ninian, he knew why – knew the past would catch up with him here at some point. Knew there would be a day Conall would come for him. A day that his own father would go too far. And that day had come.
“How did he ken ye were here, Ronan?”
Ronan sat back in his chair, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic, a frown pulling at his mouth. He thought back to the day he’d left Belwich behind and had to bite back the anger that was a staple of his life as all of the unpleasant memories filled his mind. Ronan tried to beat them back and push away the anger, forcing himself to be calm.
“When I left me home and clan behind, I told Conall where I was goin’. He’s the only one who kent. And I told him if there was trouble, or if he needed me help, he could come tae me,” Ronan said.
“So he’s in trouble then?”
Ronan shrugged. “Aye. I think so. But I ken what ye’re worried about, and nay, that trouble willnae be followin’ him here. Like I said, nobody else kens he’d come here. Nobody else kens where I am. And he would’ve died before he told anybody. If trouble were comin’, it would already be here.”
Ninian nodded but still looked concerned. Monasteries being raided and pillaged were not unheard of, so Ronan understood his worry. But Airnred was off the beaten path and far away from Belwich, which was why Ronan chose the monastery in the first place. He could live anonymously here – hoped he could escape his past and learn to be a better man.
“He said yer faither had slain his brother. Tried tae slay him,” Ninian said, sending a dagger of pain through Ronan’s heart.
“Aye. He did.”
He fell silent for a long moment, trying to stuff his anger down deep inside. Ronan knew his father rising up against his uncle and Conall and usurping the Lairdship had always been a possibility. His father, Kenneth, had always lusted for power. For control. His father had served as the First Sword to Bram, his own brother, but Ronan knew Kenneth coveted the Lairdship for his own.
His father had been making moves behind the scenes to seize power, but Ronan had hoped that his small rebellion had destroyed those plans. It was why he’d sacrificed everything and fled his ancestral home. Why he’d turned his back on the clan and the life he’d been building there. He’d hoped his actions would have spurred Bram to take matters seriously and cast his father out.
It angered and saddened Ronan to know that his actions had been in vain. It enraged him that his father had murdered his uncle, nearly murdered his cousin, and had seized control of the clan despite everything. But Ronan stifled his emotions, not wanting to jump to conclusions. Conall had been in bad shape when he arrived, and before Ronan gave himself over to his rage, he wanted to hear the full story when Conall was coherent and clearheaded. Perhaps he was wrong?
“I’d caution ye tae take a breath, lad. I can see the anger in yer eyes. Ye need tae clear yer mind because the sort of anger I see in yer eyes right now never leads tae anythin’ good.”
“Aye. I will, Faither.”
In the bed, Conall stirred, a low groan passing his lips. But then his eyes opened, and his gaze fell upon Ronan and Ninian.
“How long have I been out?” he asked, his voice dry and raspy.
“Four days,” Ronan answered.
His cousin muttered to himself as Ronan poured a cup of watered wine and handed it to his cousin. Conall took it gratefully and swallowed down half the cup. He wiped his mouth and looked at them both uncertainly as Ninian got to his feet and laid a hand on Ronan’s shoulder.
“Remember what I said, lad.”
“I will, Faither.”
“Then I’ll leave ye lads tae it,” Ninian said, and walked out of the cell.
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