Healing the Highlander (Preview)
The healer’s cottage sat near the main castle and was easily accessible from the great hall. Behind it, the rolling green hills stretched as far as the eye could gaze. Ava and Sophia moved quickly inside the healer’s cottage.
“He’ll be needin’ his bones set,” Sophia said through tight lips with a furrow on her brow. Padraig, the clan’s primary healer, entered the cottage just as Ava took out a long thin piece of wood, one of the many kept, in case they needed a firm tool to push bones back into a straighter position.
“I’ve asked the castle tae start heatin’ up some tea and tae throw some whiskey in it as well,” Padraig whispered in a husky voice – leaning against the wall and catching his breath.
Ava took her long dark hair and braided the waves away from her face while she got to work. Padraig had long ago shown her how to reset the bones back into place when needed. She thought it funny at times that it was the one form of healing Sophia was unable to teach her, having too weak of a stomach for it after giving birth to two children.
Her deep chestnut eyes took on a ferocious determination as she cleared the table in the center, the one they propped patients on. The man would be arriving soon. One of his fellow field workers had run ahead to warn the healers his fellow tender was in desperate need of help. Apparently, a stallion had escaped while being tamed. The poor fellow tried to stop the escaping horse, and as the horse reared up, the wind was knocked out of him, and he stumbled, his leg catching in a small hole and cracking beneath him. The imagined sound resonated in Ava’s ears as she heard from the fellow worker what happened.
“We’re here!” One man shouted from just outside the cottage. Sophia and Ava rushed out while Padraig stayed inside. She was skilled for her age, but even she understood she was merely supporting the two other healers.
“Lay the lad here,” Ava directed the two men carrying their fellow worker by the arms. She pointed towards the table, and they moved as quickly as they could. The man between them cried out in pain, his face contorting.
“Ack!” he cried out as he was thrown quickly onto the long smooth table. His leg had to be held up, as the bone on the lower half was bent at an odd angle.
“Hold the lad still,” Ava commanded with as much force as she could. Sophia gave her a swift nod of approval. This was all part of her training. While she knew much about healing, she was still learning, and parts of that involved being direct, being strong-willed, and also being kind.
“Ava, dae ye ken what we need tae dae?” Sophia asked, leaning over the man and glancing at the leg. Padraig remained silent in the corner, and Ava glanced at him for support. He gave her a small and barely perceptible nod but said nothing.
“Aye, first, we need tae give the lad a swig of whiskey. Let him take a few big drinks.” Sophia followed Ava’s guidance and gave the bottle to the man’s friends, who helped him take a few large gulps. He swallowed it, making a soft tsk as the sting hit his throat.
“Now, we need tae prepare the lad. I must set this right away before it gets any worse. Hand me the wood please, Sophia.” The man watched her as she spoke, and she offered him a small smile but was unable to do more to ease his nerves. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back.
“Alrigh’. I’m going tae slide this board beneath ye, and then I will have tae push the bone back intae place. I shall count, and then I will dae it. Understand?” She looked to the man, and he stared at her, sweat running down his face.
“Aye, just get it over wit’,” he said quickly through grunts.
“One… two…” Before she could reach three, Ava pressed down firmly, and the familiar soft crack of a bone pushed back into place sounded throughout the cottage. She knew many men hated to be tricked, but if she did it on the count of three, most men would tense up in anticipation, and it would hurt them all the more. No, she had decided long ago it was best to catch them by surprise.
“ACK! GAR!” The man yelled out in response and immediately scrunched his body in half at the waist, trying to reach for his leg and failing. He flopped back onto the table, and his head hit the wood with a soft thunk. “Ye were supposed tae get tae three!” He yelled at her, but Ava was accustomed to this.
“I said I would count, but I didnae say I would get tae three.” She said as she crossed her arms. Padraig had to stifle a giggle. “Now, I will be needin’ ye tae lay back and relax fer a few moments. I’ve already asked fer tea tae be brought down fer ye, and it will help with the healin’ an’ the pain.” Ava began to tie a few loose pieces of linen around the wooden plank and the man’s leg.
“We will leave this on until the lads get ye home. It’ll help make sure yer bone doesnae slip back out of place.” The tea was served, and Ava directed the two friends to help the man sit up as she moved to a small table near his side, so he could easily reach his cup of tea.
“Dinnae fash, I put a bit a’ whiskey in there fer ye.” She said as she handed him the tea. He took it and moved it to his lips quickly, desperate for the soothing numbness of the alcohol.
“I think it best if ye get tae yer home now. I will come out tae have a look in a few days; fer now, dinnae use it at all. I’ll be happy tae confirm this with the man who oversees yer part of the field, if needed.” The man thanked her in a low voice, and his two friends helped him up. He slipped out of the cottage almost as quickly as he had arrived. Once he was out, Ava collapsed onto the nearest chair.
“Ye did verra well, Ava. I am surprised how quickly ye are overtakin’ me with yer healin’ abilities.” Sophia added with a soft blush.
Ava smiled, “Tis only ‘cause of how well ye and Padraig have taught me. But still, every time I hear a bone crack intae place, my body shivers. I’ll never get used tae it.”
“Ye will, lassie, over time. It will be almost a relief of a sound.” Padraig laughed a hearty laugh, and Ava chose to believe him, knowing one way or another, she would need to become more accustomed to the noise.
“Well, tis time fer me tae run in and grab some food. After all of that preparing and snapping of bones, I’m ready fer a fine meal.” Ava stood and brushed off her skirts, pausing in the doorway.
“Tis a fine day, the sun is warmer than usual beneath these heavy skies.” Ava watched the clouds move along the sky in longing.
“Why dinnae ye take the rest of the day tae relax. Ye work hard here, and yer still so young.” Sophia moved a loose curl from Ava’s face to behind her ear.
“Yer right, I dae work much here.” She gave Sophia a quick hug and a small squeeze of appreciation to Padraig before wandering away from the cottage. She took her time moving towards the main part of the castle. Now that she had the whole afternoon, she wondered how she should spend it. Perhaps a nice picnic outside would lift her spirits – especially with the glorious weather. She had experienced a few rough weeks, and her heart felt heavy of late.
Ava turned and chose to take the longer route back to the castle. Though it was almost twice the distance, she wanted to enjoy being outside. Taking small steps, she watched the fog near the loch and wondered where her father might be. She hadn’t seen him in two days, though they both lived in the castle. It seemed he was tied up with his work, as usual. She thought back to her last memory of quality time with him and found it had been years. Though they had been close when she was younger, that changed slowly over time. The years had caused a slow leaking away of their closeness. Before she knew it, they could go days without talking, and neither would even notice.
It started after he and Sophia had their second child. She couldn’t blame him. He was so enamored with his new family, and she was quickly growing up. She had her uncle, Dillon – and he was very giving of his time and advice. Dillon had been close to her mother before Ava was born, so he became a part of the family over the years, despite not being a blood relative. Though she could turn to him, it was not a relationship that eradicated the feelings of loneliness at her core. Neither he nor her father were available when she needed them. Sophia tried to fill the holes as best she could, but she too lived a chaotic life. So Ava was left to turn to herself. It left her longing for closeness, but few girls from the village wanted to spend time with her. They were worried she would run to her father with anything they spoke of. So Ava had turned to the healing arts to soothe her loneliness. The more Sophia trained her, the more she sought to study. She filled her time learning to recognize the plants that had healing benefits, drawing them -studying them in their many stages, wanting to be the best healer she could.
As she threw herself into these studies, it left no space for loneliness or desire for the family relationships she had as a child. She shook away the thoughts of her father and focused instead on the plants in the small garden patch near the back entrance of the castle. She called the names of them out in her mind to appease herself and to prove what she had learned about the healing arts. There was still much to learn, but Sophia told her she knew much more than she, herself, knew at that same age.
Ava leaned towards the small garden bed and let herself breathe in the scent of the bright wildflowers they had planted earlier in the spring. She leaned into the dirt, though she knew the castle staff would scold her for dirtying her dress. She couldn’t help it. She just wanted to be near the plants and was lost in the sensory experience as two voices approached.
She stood quickly and moved towards the castle wall, the voices near the back entrance.
“Aye, Logan, ye always think ye ken best.” It was Dillon, and he sounded filled with ale and whiskey. His voice was loud, and he slurred as he spoke. Her uncle had always been protective of her, like a father, one would say. “I need tae get some air before we continue talkin’ about this.” He took in a deep breath.
Logan began to speak, “I dae ken best. I raised her meself fer many years. Now, ye may have her interests at heart as I dae, and ye may also be important in her life, but ye cannae take away that I raised her, Sophia and I, and it is we that should choose.”
Ava was torn. She wanted to rush over and speak to the two men – both drunk and angry. But they were talking about her. If she rushed over, knowing her father, he would hush her. He would tell her to go back inside, and she would not find out a single thing. If she stayed put, quietly, she might hear more.
“Well, if ye need air, ye better return quick. Time is upon us, and we cannae put off the decision.” Logan spat the words at Dillon angrily. Ava had heard of his brutish and bear-like behavior from his early years. She never saw it herself, but occasionally saw glimpses when she heard him arguing with others. Like right now. Dillon and Logan had their fair share of disagreements.
“I ken, we will make our choice todae. I shall return after a short walk. Leave me be.” She heard Dillon walk-off, huffing and sighing as her father’s footsteps faded into the castle.
Ava needed to know what was going on. What were the two of them arguing about? It had something to do with her, and from what she could gather, they were making choices about her life and needed to make them fast. Were they considering sending her away? Ava was now a fully grown woman, and at twenty years old, surely she had some say over her own life? Though this was still Scotland and her father was the Laird, she wondered what he possibly believed he could choose for her. Hopefully, not something drastic.
She moved quickly towards the castle entrance. Once inside, she would pry the staff to see if they could tell her something. While her father might be head of the clan, she was head of the servants and had long treated them like family. Surely someone would talk.
Ava made her way into the castle with a plan in place to hopefully figure out exactly what the two of them were arguing about. They had mentioned her by name, and if they were to exclude her from the conversation, then she had every right to use deceit to get the information. She looked around as she crept over to the stairwell. Slowly, she walked up a few floors to the second-highest level where the kitchen was.
The staff welcomed her immediately as they always did.
“Ava, me precious lassie, how are ye todae?” One of the main cooks asked, leaning in to squeeze her cheek.
“I’m great, Greta, just in fer a small bite, maybe a roll and some butter, if ye dinnae mind?” She plastered on a smile, and the woman gave a loud laugh.
“A course, lassie, ye ken where it is, grab yer fill and have a seat if ye like. Ye can help me plait the next loaf if ye like?” She pointed her chin to the table where some dough lay resting.
“Aye, that I will dae.” Ava moved through the kitchen with a small cloth and loaded on two rolls, cheese, and a dollop of butter. She sat at the table and chewed slowly. She needed to buy herself as much time as possible, and she could not make it seem suspicious.
Ava had a plan. In the uppermost level of the castle was one of Logan’s private quarters where he routinely held clan meetings and other critical small gatherings. She hoped he and Dillon would be rushing up there to speak. She knew her father well, despite not being close to him. Stealthily, she would follow them up the staircase, and if she were quiet enough, she would likely hear them.
“I see yer father’s been havin’ meetin’s with Dillon all mornin’. It seems they’re speakin’ about ye, lassie,” Gretta said quietly, peeking outside the kitchen before continuing. “I wish I could say more, but I have nay idea o’ what they speak about. All mornin’ they’ve been at each other’s throats.”
“Aye, I wish if they wanted tae speak about me, they would dae it with me there. But it seems tae much tae ask fer in this clan,” Ava rolled her eyes. This wasn’t the first time her father made decisions that concerned her behind her back. The others had all been petty issues. Nothing major. This conversation felt different somehow. She worried it was something graver, something she wished they would not discuss without her present.
She wondered if she could ask Sophia, but knew it was unlikely she would turn against her own husband and reveal something he did not wish Ava to know. Once again, she felt alone.
Ava sat at the table furthest from the door and ripped open a small roll and slathered it with butter. On another piece of bread, she put a slice of cheese, taking slow and calculated bites. She allowed herself to chew the food longer than usual and only took a drink when she had finally swallowed all the food. She needed to stay there as long as it took. Once she saw Dillon and Logan return, she would follow after them.
Ava was halfway through the second piece of bread when she heard the familiar heavy steps of her father. She listened and heard Dillon’s voice soon after. This moment could be her only chance to find out precisely what the two were keeping from her. While Logan had always been better at whispering, Dillon was never able to quieten himself, especially not after a drink or two. She watched from her far corner, leaning into the wall, knowing they couldn’t see her. Their steps echoed away from the kitchen, and Ava strained to hear them, allowing a short passage of time to elapse until she followed them. Why must her father treat her like a child? She was twenty years old and well prepared to handle whatever he needed to speak about. Why did he feel the need to be so secretive? Perhaps it was their distance. Maybe he too struggled to talk to her the way she struggled to speak with him. Whatever the reason, there was no excuse for him to treat her like a ten-year-old. She deserved to know the decisions he was making for her. She would find out, even if she were discovered in the process.
After waiting for as long as she could bear, she stood from the table and walked over to Greta and quietly told her she would be back to plait the dough shortly.
Ava left the kitchen quickly and moved silently towards the stairway. There were not too many steps to the uppermost floor, so Ava took them quietly, hoping the two men were nowhere near the entrance. She knew the stone walls would echo their voices, but needed to be near enough to hear their lowered voices.
The stairway was empty, and from the floor underneath, Ava couldn’t hear a thing. She carried on, walking one step at a time -pausing between each one to make sure no one heard her before she moved on. Getting caught was one of the risks, and she wasn’t keen on dealing with his anger.
Finally, she was almost at the top. She could hear Dillon and her father’s voice as clearly as the roosters in the early morning.
“Dillon, what makes ye think yer right about this, aye? I ken my daughter, and I ken I’m makin’ the right choice. Tae have ye say otherwise is blasphemous,” He tried to keep some restraint in his voice, but Ava could hear the aggression slipping forth.
She held her breath. What choice was he speaking about? What choice had he made? Her father continued.
“An’ tis nay even just about Ava. This is a choice I’m makin’ fer the whole clan. Think of what I spoke of earlier; the neighboring clan could be a form of protection fer us, should anythin’ happen again. Tis one way tae keep us outtae war.” His voice took on a more steady tone now that he had continued to build his argument. What could he have decided that had to do with a neighboring clan? Was he considering expanding and owning more land? But how would that involve her? She hoped they would say more on the subject. As it was, Ava was still clueless.
She could hear one of the men lean back into their chair. The fabric and cushion squeaked beneath his weight. She wondered if it was Dillon. Was he considering all her father said? The two of them were always at odds. She recalled how often they had argued over how she should be raised and educated. In the end, Logan always won the argument. Her father was a natural leader and equally skilled in developing a winning case. There was also a sense of cowardice in Dillon. He seemed to carry a heavy weight on his shoulders, a burden that caused him to give way to Logan’s demands. She wondered when he would finally stick up for himself.
“Logan, I dinnae think tis the best choice. The lad is nay a good man. And the clan, sure, this choice will nay start a war, but what else may come of it? Listen, I think the lad I have in mind is a better choice. He’s skilled in war – his clan is skilled in farmin’. There is nay a winter where they dinnae have enough tae feed their people. Tis a bit further, but Ava may want tae leave.”
Ava felt her heart skip a beat. What where the two men talking about? What about a man? Surely Dillon didn’t believe that Ava would want to leave their clan? Why would she? The Loch had always been her home, and she saw it as her future. She planned on living there and becoming the clan’s healer one day. No one was going to take that away from her.
“Aye, they are good people, but the MacThomas clan is the best choice fer her if she wants tae continue bein’ a healer. The son will let her dae as she pleases so long as she provides an heir. Nay just that, Dillon, but there’s talk of another war bein’ started by the large clan in the North. We need tae think about protecting Ava and the clan. We need tae be prepared. Marrying her tae a neighborin’ clan is the best option.”
Suddenly everything clicked into place. How could Ava have been so stupid? They were talking about her, about a man, about an heir. Marriage. This was the big secret. She was twenty, and her father was ready to send her off against her will to be married to some man she did not know. No, Ava could not handle the news. Surely he didn’t intend to do that? She tried to control her emotions – needed to hear more – to be as prepared as possible to know how she could best approach the two men.
“The MacThomas clan are good people, but if ye meet my clan, ye might change yer mind. Listen, Logan, I have a suggestion. Surely, Ava can give her input. Maybe she can meet both the lads.” Dillon added after a moment of silence. Ava moved her head side to side. She didn’t want to meet any man, but perhaps if she did, she could find a way to convince her father the two men were not for her. Surely it was better than having her father and Dillon decide for her.
The whole situation was making her stomach turn and quake. The food threatened to rise in her throat. Ava tried to calm herself, but she could not slow her heart. How could her father do this to her? He hadn’t even asked her if she was ready for marriage,
It was then Ava felt a cool breeze on her cheek. She brought her hand to her face and found she was crying without realizing it. Pushing herself to stand, she descended the steps slowly, doing her best to make no sound. She had heard enough- there was no point in staying longer – her heart was already aching.
Only from a calm place could she act wisely. She would decide on a plan to stop this from happening and didn’t want to act on impulse
As soon as Ava was able, she rushed outside, her stomach turning. How could the two men make decisions for her? Her father of all people should know that she wanted love and romance. He had given up on love for quite some time, but then found Sophia and married her, even though she was not as suitable as some for the wife of a laird. He married her because he loved her above all things. And now he was making a choice for Ava based on convenience and the clan’s welfare. What about what she wanted?
Ava felt sick to her stomach. There was nothing to do right now, and she raced down the steps from the castle, needing to be near the loch. She needed to feel the cool breeze and see the cool, clear water. It was the only space where she could clear her mind and heart.
She ran towards the vastness of the loch until her breath caught in her chest and escaped in deep, heavy sobs. Ava was not sure what to do but needed to think up a plan fast. The two men were inevitably going to arrive sooner than later. Ava knew more than most that once her father made a decision, he would act quickly. She needed to make her own plans. If there was anything she had learned from him, it was to expect the best but to prepare for the worst.
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