Wrapped in his Highland Sins (Preview)
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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?”
“What kind of 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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