A Healer for the Highlander (Preview)
Save for the breeze running through it, the drafty castle corridor was empty. It was summer, and as the warm air gave way to a nighttime chill, it felt as though the season had ended. Laird Logan Maxwell sat on a stiff bench in the corner of a ghostly hall, far from the reach of the lanterns. Fall was nearing; a time to prepare for harvest, to begin the process of storing and planning for winter, but all he could focus on was the cold in his heart.
It had been over five years since the death of his wife, Isla. He remembered the night clearly: how secure he had felt, and how thrilled they both were at the arrival of their first-born child.
“Yer goin’ te make a great father.” Isla always had a way of comforting Logan, even when she was the one who needed comforting.
“And ye’ll make an even better mother.” He reached over to her as she lay in bed, panting and sweating, and placed a damp cloth on her forehead.
“I cannae wait tae see what we’re havin’.”
The evening started off well, and seemed to be going according to plan. She had started the night ecstatic, looking forward to motherhood. The contractions sped up and intensified, but Isla seemed more than able to handle it. She was showing her strength as a wife and new mother, pushing through it all—until the aches built to an unbearable amount, and the bleeding began. Isla had tried to remain strong, but all of her strength went to bringing her child into the world.
“Logan, Logan love, I dinnae theenk I’m goin’ tae make it.”
“Dinnae say that, Isla. You will be alright, love.” He turned towards the healers in a rage, near growling at them. “Ye bastards better make this right. We need her ta be well.”
“Logan, ye canna blame them for this. Tis my time tae go, is all.”
Logan looked at his wife in bed, her paling skin. Then his gaze found the blood that pooled between her legs. The healers went to work immediately, doing their best to comfort her, applying poultices, moving her body to stop the flow. But nothing they did would help. Isla was right; it was her time to go. As soon as little Ava was born, the bleeding intensified, and within minutes of seeing her newborn baby girl, his wife was gone.
The shock of the evening swept through him fiercely, even now. It was a night they were meant to be celebrating, but instead, he was forced to say goodbye to the love of his life, the only woman who kept him gentle and kind. People wondered why he had grown so bitter, why he was always so ruthless and angry. The reason was simple. Anyone who lost a wife the same day they gained a child would respond in the same way.
Now, at a time when he should be thrilled of the size of his estate, the growing crops, and all he had to offer his people and his daughter, he could only think of how much his suffering had cost him. No one would ever bring back his wife, and no one would ever fill the hole she left. He longed to have a small hand like hers to hold once more. A waist to pull in close to him. It wasn’t only her calm manner of being, but her presence. God, how he missed the touch of a woman and all the softness Isla brought into his life. There were evenings where he’d wake in a sweat, and the softness of the quilt against his bare skin felt as if the woman was still alive, right there in bed with him.
Though he didn’t have Isla, he still had some support: two strong-willed but gentle women to help make little Ava into a capable and loving woman, like her mother had been. His younger sisters, Mildred and Diana, were more supportive toward him than much of his clan had been in these rough years.
Mildred was slightly older than Diana, but she was ruthless. Had she been born a man, she’d have made a finer leader than Logan could ever hope to become. That was why Logan often went to her for advice first, and why she was quick to scold him the minute he made the slightest of errors.
Diana was the gentler of the two. She was the one who could nurse the spirits of the clans’ people back to health. She would teach Ava how to be the loving spirit her mother had been. Together, they showed Ava the ways of women, and at times, reminded him of his wife’s wise words: a true keeng leads with kindness in his heart and his strength only in his fists, nae the other way aroun’. However, he could rarely ponder these words for longer than a moment. Leading with kindness had grown nearly impossible. Most days, the only emotions he felt were grief and longing.
Logan ran his palm along his beard. The deep red hair covered the permanent frown he carried. His eyes, deep blue like the sea, were empty of anything but sorrow. His loss showed in the faint lines forming around his eyes. Such loss at so young an age caused him to appear sterner, grimmer, fiercer than he ever imagined himself to be. He had long been considered a good leader, but even Logan had to admit that in the years after his wife’s passing, much had changed—both in himself and those around him.
Mildred walked into the hall, dragging him out of his silent spell. Logan rolled his eyes. He wanted nothing to do with his sister at the moment.
“Be gone, lass. I dinnae wish tae speak right now.”
“Aye, dinnae think ye can talk tae me like that, Logan. I’ll leave ye tae yer miserable silence soon. We need ta have a talk first.”
“What is it, then?”
“Logan, ye once were a kind Laird, a genteel man who cared about his people, but now ye’ve changed.”
Logan knew she was right. The sound of his footfalls alone caused people to cower, to hide. The morale of the clan was dropping. Few people served out of faith and loyalty these days; instead, it seemed everyone obeyed out of fear. There were leaders who spent their entire reigns trying to instill this same fear, but this was never Logan’s plan. It wasn’t that he enjoyed his new brutish self. He thought himself a responsible leader who cared about the well-being of his clan. He wanted to be the way he was before his wife’s passing. The guilt weighed heavy on his chest.
“I canna say I disagree.” He took in a deep breath. “Tis nae an easy feat, losing yer wife like that.”
Mildred threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. “We ken how hard it was, Logan, but ye have wee Ava tae think ‘bout now. And ye cannae go ’round treating yer people the way ye’ve been treating ‘em. Ye need tae let that poor man go back tae his wife.” She stood still and crossed her arms.
The week before, a man was caught for thieving on Logan’s estate. Logan tried to be kind, to be understanding, but when the man mentioned it was for his wife, he couldn’t bear to feel sympathy.
“I could’ na see anything but my Isla, dead, and a man in front of me who would be allowed tae return tae his wife.”
“Ye cannae punish this man for yer losses. Ye’d think ye’d be more carin’ towards him, given yer own wife’s story!”
“I’ve already let the man go, Mildred.”
She sighed deeply. “Ye were once a fine leader, Logan, but now ye haven’ got any bit of strength left in ye.”
The words were like cold water to his face. He had tried to make his own amends, but sharing those details with his sister felt pitiful. He left food for the man and his wife outside their home, but this was all in secret and nothing the people knew about. He was too ashamed, hopeful that everyone would forget the event altogether.
No one wanted to be near him these days, and he couldn’t blame them. Logan wasn’t proud of who he had become. He always thought he would be a grand leader, like his father. People still spoke about him as if his spirit lingered, empowering the whole lot of them. The truth was, it wasn’t only Logan who noticed his own changes, and not just Mildred, either. His whole clan changed the way they engaged with him.
Mildred slowly approached the bench where Logan sat in the shadows. She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“I ken I need tae make changes.” He let out with a sigh. He placed his hand atop Mildred’s.
“Ye cannae lose this estate tae Laird Dillon. The man is a tyrant, Logan, a tyrant. He’ll have us all starvin’ and on our knees, digging for sweetgrass as feed, before we have a chance tae see the sunset.”
Logan hadn’t told his sister about Laird Dillon’s threats directly, but as usual, she already knew. Of course, Dillon wanted Logan’s land. Laird Dillon’s estate was nowhere near as large as Logan’s. Now, he realized, it was obvious that word had spread beyond his people, and Logan knew this would push Dillon to feel confident enough to fight for more. The memory of their last meeting and Dillon’s words resonated in his mind.
As the wind whistled along the walls, Logan pounded his fist on the bench, trying to ignore the memory. His broad shoulders quivered from the force. Their last exchange had left him desperate and lost in his own fury. Dillon had come to meet with him, to try and convince Logan to give away his estate, as if it was a true possibility.
“Ye’ve lost yer touch! Yer nae fit tae lead yer own clan!” Dillon hit the table with his mug of ale. The liquid foamed and sloshed. “Ye ought tae surrender now. Ye cannae even move through the estate withou’ yer people runnin’ from ye!”
“I am their leader. It’s nae a bad thing tae have yer own clan fear ye. They ken tae listen, tae respect. I will never surrender them tae ye. Withou’ me, the whole estate would fall.” Logan lifted his own mug and chugged back his ale.
“Mark me words, lad. If ye cannae get yer own head under control, ye will lose the estate, and there will be nothing left for ye tae surrender.” Dillon swung back his own drink and drained it just as quickly.
Logan did not want to admit that Dillon was right, but a part of him knew that the man’s words rang true. He knew he would never get over his wife’s death, but his daughter needed him to be the leader he once had been. She would grow to be a strong woman soon enough. He couldn’t expect any man to want to marry the daughter of someone so weak as to surrender an entire estate, and Logan wasn’t one to surrender. Without his estate, how would he save a proper dowry for his future son-in-law?
He knew Dillon wasn’t much of a leader either; always wanting to expand, but never caring to provide what his people needed. All he was after was the power and the land. He only wanted to make himself bigger, not give back to his estate. There was a fire in his eyes that night, a fire of which Logan refused to admit fear. But if that fire gave any inkling of Dillon’s true intents, Logan knew it wouldn’t be the last he would hear of this idea. Logan wouldn’t let that happen. He might not have been so kind recently, but at least he provided for his people.
“That man fills me with rage.” Mildred brushed some dust off her dress.
“Aye.” Logan stood, gulping his ale. He hoped the liquid would calm him some, bring the sleep that always seemed to evade him.
There wasn’t anyone better suited for this estate than himself. But to change, to convince his people that he could be the same leader he once was—that would take a great deal of effort, and Logan wasn’t sure where to begin.
He ran a hand through his deep red hair. “Aye, well, tis time I try tae get some rest, I think.”
“Logan, there’s one other thing.” Logan turned to face his sister. Her eyebrows bunched. “Tis, well, there’s been whispers among the staff, talk of a kind of rebellion. Some of them have been in talks with Dillon’s clan.”
Logan couldn’t believe what he heard. His sister turned away, unable to look at him.
“A rebellion. What do ye mean?” Logan searched his mind for any evidence that would prove this event was a long time coming, but he couldn’t find much. He hadn’t been a tyrant, not at all like Dillon, nothing that should make his people wish to turn against him.
“They dinnae think me a fit leader anymore?” Logan asked.
Mildred shook her head.
“I’m nae sure what it is; it’s all in whispers, and I canna tell ye where it comes from. But tis a warning, Logan. Yer people are beginning ta think of turning against ye. Wherever the idea comes from, it’s an idea that needs ta be squashed.”
“I’ll see tae it, Mildred. Thank ye for comin’ tae me with this.”
Logan’s fears were coming true. He thought he had some time to fix the mess around him, but his people were already plotting against him.
If his own clan didn’t want to support him, and Dillon did attempt to take control, how would he convince his own people he was worth fighting for?
Sophia’s eyelids fluttered as drops of sweat traced her temple and her hairline. Heat radiated through the room. Even for a summer night, the temperature was far too high. Her hair was as bright as an orange primrose, and it lay softly beside her, cascading across the pillow cradling her head. As the sweat moved down her face, a drop ran along her neck, and the tickle woke her from a deep sleep. At first, Sophia thought she was still in her dream, the same one she’d been having for weeks. In the dream, a man faced away from her. He had broad shoulders and appeared wild and brutish.
He spoke to Sophia but never faced her. “I need yer help. I cannae do this without ye. I need to remember who I was before all of this.”
In her dream, Sophia approached him. She smoothed her hands along his shoulders, removing his heavy cloak.
“I’ll help ye as best as I can.” Always, as he was about to turn and finally embrace her, she would wake, her skin damp and clammy. The man whose face she could never make out, but whose hands, she imagined, would feel like silk against her skin—a touch she fell asleep thinking of and hoped to dream of each night. But tonight, instead of waking with the longing she usually felt, she found herself shutting her eyes as quickly as she had opened them.
“Ach, wha—” She felt the smoke wrap its hands around her throat as she began to cough and choke. She reached up, clutching at her neck, trying to let in a fresh breath. She opened her eyes and tried to look around. Between the darkness of the night and the thick clouds of grey smoke, Sophia could scarcely see her own hand in front of her. What was going on? Her lungs burned with ash, and her skin began to feel sore from the heat. A bright light near the bedroom door caught her eye. She turned and could make out enough to see the whole interior wall ablaze, the flames licking from floor to ceiling. Sophia turned in bed, looking for a quilt, anything to guard herself from the flames, but there was nothing within reach.
As she turned back to face the fire, her bedroom door burst open, sending bits of ash and charred wood flying towards her. She cowered on the bed, unable to do much but wait for the flames to reach her. A hunched figure ran towards her, a wool blanket held out in front of his body. At first, her heart pounding in fear, she turned away from the person.
“I’ve got ye!” The figure threw the blanket over Sophia, grabbing her in a single moment. “Cover ye face with the fabric!”
The crackling of the flames made it difficult to hear anything. Her body became dead weight; she didn’t know whether to fight the man off or be grateful that he swept her out of the room before it collapsed on her. He moved slow and sluggish; even though Sophia was thin, her weight proved a burden. There was no fresh air to breathe. The blanket covered most of her eyes, but even beneath it, all she could taste was smoke. Her skin burned with the heat of the air around her. As the man carried her through the house, she could hear him moan and yelp while the flames reached out to sting his bare arms. It was in his pain that Sophia finally recognized the voice.
“Father, Father, put me down! Save yerself, Father!” But the creaking and crashing of their home’s collapsing walls overpowered the sound of her voice.
Beneath the blanket, she could see only glimpses of their surroundings, but what she saw was enough. All around them, the house was falling apart. Large wooden beams crashed down and all the furniture was aflame. The walls had crumbled entirely. Her home was all she had ever known and the only sanctuary she had, and now it was coming undone before her very eyes. Everything was in ruins. Even in her panic, she couldn’t help but wonder what had caused it. The wetness of the air in the highlands meant fires rarely started without purpose.
Had this been her fault? Had she left a candle burning too close to a curtain? Had a passing traveler left a fire blazing too close to the dry grasses near her home? Whatever the cause of the chaos, she knew her life would never be the same.
Her father struggled through the house. Beams fell in front of him, and he navigated the flames hurriedly. Sophia could sense his struggle. Their house was a small one, but in flames, everything could become a maze. Before she knew it, Sophia felt a rush of fresh air. She could see the faint glow of the moon as she felt herself tumbling toward the ground outside. She rolled off her father’s weathered body.
In the light from the raging fire, Sophia could see that his skin was burnt and blistered. She crawled over to him, but before she could tend to him, her surroundings drew her gaze. The fields bordering her home were ablaze. The fire wasn’t only invading their home; it was spreading across the land around them. The flames climbed as high as the tallest trees. The damage, she knew, would be irreparable. The harvest, near-ready to be gathered, was buried beneath clouds of smoke. Everything around her was falling apart.
“Father, are you alright? Father, answer me!”
“Sophia my love, in this moonlight, ye have yer mother’s face.”
“Father, ye cannae leave me now.”
“Ye need tae go, Sophia. Ye need tae get outta here ‘fore the flames get ye. Leave yer father here. There’s nothing tae be done.” He coughed his last words, and his hand fell from Sophia’s face.
She needn’t touch him to know his body hadn’t withstood the heat of the flames. There was nothing she could do for him. She held her palm out in front of his mouth, hoping for a tickle of breath. Instead, all she felt was the heat radiating from his burns.
Her father was dead. Her home, her only family, all gone in a matter of moments. The grief poured through Sophia, and she let out a radiating sob. How had this happened? Her body ached with the sudden grief and the acute pain of the loss of her father. After Sophia lost her mother, she had struggled to recover, and the only reason she had was because of her father. Now, who would help ease her through this burdensome loss?
Behind her, she could hear whimpers of fear. As much as she wanted to stay at her father’s side, she knew she needed to escape, or she would end up in the same position. Sophia looked around and saw the source of the sounds. The barn by their home was not yet on fire, but the building stood close enough to the flames that it would not take much longer before it, too, was engulfed. In a panic, she realized, the animals!
Without a second thought, she stood up and ran towards the flames. She knew her mare, Moon, was inside.
As she ran to the doors, she heard the sounds more clearly. Over the crackling of the blaze, she could hear yells and whimpers all colliding in one frightening din. The fire had caught many nearby homes and farms, all with families and animals inside. Sophia could see the smoke trailing for miles across the horizon. Sophia knew many of the families around her. She worried for all the young children that were trapped or all the lonely widows. Was anyone there to help them? How many people would end up like her father, abandoned in the grass?
She pushed these thoughts aside as she reached for the barn doors and saw how they swelled with heat. There was no turning back. After losing her father, Sophia knew she needed to do all she could to save her mare. She pulled the doors open, and her fear rose before the frightful scene. Inside the barn, horses kicked frantically at their posts, sensing danger. Moon’s eyes glazed over with panic. Sophia was afraid to approach her; she knew in a situation like this, Moon was likely to be easily startled, and couldn’t be blamed if she attacked. Sophia stepped forward, moving slow and steady. The heat was making it difficult to keep her eyes open.
“There, there, girl. It’s alright. I’m here for ye.” She knew she needed to move faster, but it would do no good to either of them if Moon kicked her down out of fear.
She was only a few steps away from the rope, “I’ve got ye, girl, dinnae ye fret. I’m here.” She reached to remove the rope from the hook when the metal touched her hand, scalding the flesh on her fingers. “Ah!” She threw her hands back. Moon snorted, took a few steps and began stomping at the ground in front of her.
“Sorry, girl, it’s still me, just with a bit of a burn is all.” She took a step closer. Moon’s eyes flashed rapidly between the open barn doors and her owner in front of her. Her ears returned to their normal position, and she took a step towards Sophia. She kicked the ground once more, but her eyes stayed trained on Sophia’s. Finally, reluctantly, she took a few steps forward and leaned into her owner.
“Yes, there we go.” Sophia managed to untangle the knot of rope without touching the metal hook. She pulled Moon along. She moved about the barn, rushing to undo the remaining horses, being careful not to let her skin hit any exposed pieces of metal. The remaining horses, seeing Moon’s reaction to Sophia, managed to remain calm. As she freed each horse, they ran out of the barn doors quicker than she’d ever seen them move before. The panic fueled them forward, and no horse looked back.
The only faithful horse had been Moon. Once she realized who was helping free her, Sophia knew she wouldn’t run off. As she freed the final horse, she looked back and saw the flames making their way up the back walls of the barn. Nearby hay bales sparked with an explosion, releasing embers. The fire spread on the ground, following the path of dry hay. It would take only moments for the entire barn to burst into flames, like her small house had. This was a barn built by her father’s hands, and like him, it would fade into nothing but a memory.
“Let’s go, girl, we have tae get outta here!” With that, she grabbed a nearby saddle quilt and threw it over Moon’s back. She lifted herself up onto the horse and gave her a soft kick— not that Moon needed much convincing to leave the barn. As she galloped out into the open space, the barn began to burn brightly. The roof was swallowed by the heat, and beams collapsed, releasing embers into the night sky. The barn her father had built over the span of a year was undone in mere moments. Sophia looked back, and saw her home still burning. In a single night, she had lost all she had ever known. For now, there was nothing to do but head out and try to find safety.
As Sophia and Moon rode on, they passed figures of people in a daze. Families. Men. Women. The old and young. So many small houses, houses built by the people, burned to nothing but piles of smoldering ash. She heard children wailing in fright. The air around her weighed heavy with everyone’s fear. Nothing could have prepared them for a tragedy like this. With the sounds of pain ringing through the air, she knew there would be many lives lost to this night. There would be many who lived as well, but what would they have to help them start over? In a daze, Sophia followed the others. Where would she live now?
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