Her Highlander’s Redemption (Preview)
The woods were quiet and heavy with the stillness that came in the hours just before dawn. Norah McIntosh shivered slightly as she tugged her cloak further around her, in a vain attempt to ward off both her apprehension and the chill of the pre-dawn air.
She had never been out of her family’s keep at such an hour, unless she was on the road, traveling, and even then it was rare. She had certainly never been out alone. Her parents might not have cared for her much – being the second daughter of a couple who had never wanted a first – but her father would do his duty by kin and protect the investment and alliance potential she represented.
She shivered again. Her father would be furious if he knew where she was and why she had gone there.
A slight rustle of the grass nearby snapped her out of her thoughts, and she stifled a shriek of fear as she whirled around, her eyes flashing over the heavy undergrowth around her.
Please dinnae be wolves. Please dinnae be wolves.
There was a flicker of movement, and she spotted a large rabbit bounding away from her. Nothing else moved, and her mind finally made the connection.
It had just been a rabbit. She had startled a rabbit on its early morning forage.
With a gasp and a shaky laugh, Norah leaned against a nearby tree, panting for breath as she wrapped both arms around herself.
“It was just a rabbit, nothing dangerous.” Her arms tightened in reflex, a reaction of mingled instinct and sorrow. Without thought, her hands flattened against the plane of her belly. Her throat tightened with a familiar, painful sorrow.
After a moment, she swallowed back her tears and continued down the path. She was almost ready to turn back when she spotted what she had come here for.
There, nestled deep in the woods and so weather-worn and mossy that it almost looked like it grew out of the ground, was a small cottage. It was guarded on all sides by faint markings that Norah knew were meant as a warning to all who would approach.
It was the cottage of the witch of the deep woods.
A new thread of fear shivered down her spine as Norah made her way forward, staring at the house. She half expected some beast of the Fair Folk to rise up from the earth and attack her, as some of the rumors and stories hinted could happen.
The witch of the deep woods was rumored to be a dangerous being, wanting to do more harm than good, and as likely to curse a person as to aid them if approached wrongly. Many of the clan would not even speak of her without warding themselves against the evil eye, and she was so feared that any man or woman who had ever known her true name had done their level best to forget it.
Those who hadn’t chosen to forget, it was said, had died before they could make use of the information.
But nothing accosted her, neither spell nor beast, as she made her way into the small glen the witch inhabited. Norah swallowed, stifling the urge to run away and never look back, then raised her hand and knocked, following the instructions of the serving maid who had told her how to find the place.
“When ye reach the house, if ye can find it, knock five times at the level o’ yer eyes. And then ye wait, and she’ll see ye if she sees ye. If she does nae answer ‘afore the sun crests the horizon, she will nae see ye at all, and it’s best ye give a short nod and a thank ‘afore ye go. There’s nae being too courteous when dealing with the witch o’ the deep woods, ye ken.”
Norah understood the warning well. One did not disturb someone like this witch without a powerful reason, but even desperation could not be placed before manners in such a case. Whether the witch was fae-touched or devil-cursed, there was no sense in courting the ire of darker, older powers.
She only wished she had never needed to seek the witch’s aid.
The door swung open, eerily soundless as it moved. On the other side stood a woman with wild gray hair, dressed in deliberately strange patchwork clothing that seemed more like a deliberate fashion statement than a mark of poverty. Rings adorned her fingers, some sparkling with gemstones, while others were plain bands worked with delicate carvings and inscriptions that Norah had no wish to examine closely. Her face was heavily seamed with wrinkles, her nose a crooked beak, and her eyes bright with a light that could be madness, magic, malice—or perhaps all three.
The old woman tipped her head, raking Norah up and down with her too-bright gaze. “Give me yer name, girl, and tell me what brings ye.”
Norah swallowed back her first impulse. A true name in the hands of a witch was dangerous. “‘Tis Callie Macintyre, and I was told ye could be o’ help tae me. I heard ye often helped maids in my situation.”
The old woman snorted. “‘Tis half a truth and half a lie. Yer reason be true, but yer name be falsehood. But ‘tis wisdom enough in a false name, so I’ll nae ask for truth. In with ye.”
How had the woman known she was lying? Norah felt her heart hammering in her throat. Nonetheless, she stepped across the threshold with hesitant steps.
The inside of the cottage was filled with shelves and a large table near a fireplace burning with wood, emanating a delicate, earthy scent—the aroma of freshly baked bread. A sense of safety washed over her, and Norah found herself relaxing as the woman took a crust of bread and a cup of tea from the hearth and placed them in front of her. Guest right was an ancient custom, but once it was granted, it was an unspoken promise of safe passage and protection. The provision of food and drink, even in the small amount offered by the witch, was a guarantee. Norah ate, and the old woman nodded in curt approval before guiding her to a chair in front of the fire.
“Well then, what troubles you, lass, that you come to me instead of a healer?”
Norah swallowed hard, her throat aching. For all that she’d practiced the words repeatedly in her mind, they were still hard and painful to say. “I came tae ye because…I’m a month along with a babe. And I cannae keep it. A friend told me ye could help me get rid of it, quick and painless for me and the bairn both.”
“Painless for the bairn, aye. Quick, aye. Painless for ye? Nae a chance. ‘Tis kinslaying, nae matter what yer reason, and nae force among earth and skies will permit such without a price in pain and blood, nae for any maid.” The old woman shook her head. “‘Tis an ill choice, and a heavy price ye’ll pay for making it, lass. Do ye truly wish tae go forward?”
“I…” Norah bit her lip to stop the tears that stung her eyes from falling. “Truth? I dinnae want tae take this course, nae at all. But I’ve nae choice. And I’m fearing, if I went down any other path, that the babe would die in pain and fear regardless. Better gentle and ‘afore the first breath if there’s nae other fate awaiting.”
Father would surely kill the babe if it interfered with his plans tae wed me for the bride price and alliance. Mother would nae stop him. I’ve seen how they’ve treated Hazel, and they’ll be nae much kinder tae me.
The old woman made a sound between her stained and crooked teeth.
“If that’s the way o’ it, then that’s the way o’ it. But I’ll give ye one last warning. If ye choose tae do this, it can be done, but a part o’ the price is that ye’ll nae ever be able tae bear a child again. Once a lass shows herself willing tae do away with one bairn, gods above and all the forces o’ every world will see she never has chance tae harm another. ‘Tis a rule. Once ye murder, the chance for life is forever taken from yer hands.”
Norah felt the tears falling down her cheeks. She prayed for a safer option but knew there was no such one. She couldn’t change the past or ignore the events that had brought her here. “I…I ken. And I understand. But there’s nae other way.”
The old woman stared at her in silence for a moment, then sighed. “As ye will it, lass. Sit here, and I’ll prepare what ye need.” Then she rose and started moving about the room, gathering different herbs and powders.
Norah swallowed back her tears. “I thank ye. What do I owe ye?”
“Three coins and a true tale o’ why ye came tae me.” The witch looked up. “Ye say the babe would be murdered, but would nae the father care for ye and his child? Or was he a feckless lad who left ye when he learned the truth?”
Norah felt her breath catch on a sob. “‘Tis true he would have cared for me and for the babe. But he never knew I was with child. I only recently learned it, and a fortnight ago, the father o’ the babe was killed. I dinnae ken how exactly. He was a warrior, training tae serve his laird. I was told ‘twas a training accident that took his life, but I fear it might have been nae accident at all. ‘Twould nae be the first time someone o’ our kith and kin perished at the hands o’ another and those around thought it misadventure.”
“And what o’ yer own kin? Blood is blood, lass. Would they nae keep a bairn o’ their blood?” asked the witch.
“Blood is blood, but my father never wanted daughters. He was a cold man ‘afore his son and heir perished, and he was bitter cruel and hard after. I’ve nae value in his eyes save what the bride price can be, and nae man would offer bride price for a lass who’s already born a babe.”
“Nae man will pay for a lass who’s nae a maiden when she comes tae his bed. If I were tae carry the babe and keep it, I’d be outcast for certain when it was discovered, and like as nae, he’d see the bairn dead for thwarting his plans for me. He’s a hard cold man, and he was cruel enough tae my blameless sister,” Norah explained in desperation.
“And that’s why ye seek me out.” The old woman nodded. “‘Tis a sorry enough state o’ things, but I ken yer reasons well enough. Sometimes, there’s nae good choices tae be made.”
The witch finished mixing a set of powders and folded them into three soft cloth sachets. Then she tied a blue ribbon around one, a green around the second, and a red around the last and moved back to Norah’s side.
“Take the red ‘afore bed this very night in a cup o’ mead. ‘Twill begin the work. Ye’ll wake cramping like the worst moon cycle ye’ve ever had, and then ye take the blue. That’ll see the babe gone, quick and easy, and disguise the loss as a maiden’s troubles, so far as yer healer is concerned. When yer healer gives ye medicine, wait until she’s nae looking and mix in the green. ‘Twill help ye heal and leave none the wiser as tae the truth o’ the matter.”
It broke Norah’s her heart to take the sachets, but she did so, repeating back the instructions faithfully as she tucked them away. She started to rise, only to freeze in place as the old woman stroked gnarled fingers across her cheek and laid her other hand across her brow.
The old witch closed her eyes, breathing deeply, then opened them. “Someone near ye holds malice in their hearts for ye, true malice tae harm ye if they can, so be watchful and wary as ye go. Dinnae take a husband chosen for ye, for if ye do, ‘tis a path that ends in yer death at his knife, for he’ll ken the truth o’ ye and take his payment in blood price, nae matter how ye try tae soothe him or how innocent ye are in the matter. Know that there’s hope yet for yer life and joy tae be found in yer future, but ‘tis on one condition. The path ye walk must follow yer heart, nae yer head. Follow yer heart’s wisdom, and ye may end the journey in happiness. But if ye follow the whispers o’ yer mind, there’s naught but tragedy.”
Norah felt her stomach churn. She had no doubt the old woman spoke every word in truth. But such tellings were often difficult to decipher, and this one confused her. “I dinnae understand.”
The old woman patted her cheek gently. “Dinnae fuss yerself. Understanding will come with time, in the way o’ all things.”
Well, that was true enough. Norah bowed her head and rose, clutching the sachets tightly as she fumbled in her purse before remembering one of the rules she’d often heard in stories. “I thank ye kindly, elder mother, for the telling. I have the coins for the aid, but is there aught I can give ye for the words o’ wisdom?”
The old woman shook her head. “Nae. Such words are given as the gods will have it and nae in my hands. The only payment ye can give is tae heed them well and let events unfold as they must.”
“As ye will, elder.” Norah set some coins on the table in payment. “I thank ye for yer kindness and wish ye long life and good health, blessings and bounty in yer work.”
The old woman snorted and ushered her to the door. “I’ll have fortune, life, and health as the gods decree, but it speaks well o’ ye that ye speak the words and mean them true.”
Wise old eyes, far less terrifying now than they’d been less than a candle-mark ago, regarded Norah as she stepped out into the faint, pale light of dawn’s first rays. “Remember my warning, lass, and about taking a husband, for ‘tis there the trouble will come tae ye, I’m thinking.”
“I’ll remember it.” Norah lowered her head, then turned and strode from the clearing.
The return trip through the woods was far less unnerving, as it was easier to find her way and the sounds of waking birds and small animals provided a comforting backdrop. Norah maintained a swift and steady stride, her mind preoccupied with the words spoken by the old woman.
A good life seemed almost impossible as long as she remained at the mercy of her father. Finding happiness under his control felt like a wish only the Fair Folk could grant. And the only means of escaping her father’s grasp would be through marriage.
Dinnae take a husband chosen for ye, for if ye do, ‘tis a path that ends in yer death at his knife.
Norah shivered as the old woman’s warning echoed in her mind. As much as she disliked living under her father’s harsh rule, it was a preferable alternative to that fate.
She had no understanding of what the warning meant about following her heart, but one thing was clear: if she wanted to stay alive, she would have to avoid marriage altogether.
Three years later
“Ye are getting married, Norah.”
Norah stared at her father, her body frozen in silence and stillness in response to the abrupt declaration. Her father met her gaze with cold, impassive eyes.
After a moment, she managed to regain her composure enough to force words from her throat. “What? I dinnae understand.” She had sensed that something was amiss when a maid had found her in the stillroom and informed her of the summons to her father’s study. Laird Mcintosh was more inclined to ignore the existence of his youngest daughter whenever possible, rarely speaking to her even during meals and formal events.
Her wariness had deepened when she arrived to find her mother already present, seated at her father’s side. It had been three years since she had sought the help of the old woman in the deep woods, and she had almost forgotten the warning she had received. Besides, her parents had shown no inclination to arrange a marriage for her, especially after the chaos surrounding her sister Hazel’s disastrous first marriage, her subsequent wedding to Iain MacLeod, and the unexpected recovery of Iain’s father, attributed to Hazel’s healing skills.
Swallowing her fears, Norah forced herself to speak calmly, knowing she needed more information before reacting further. “What do ye mean, I’m tae be married?”
Her father scowled, as he usually did when either of his daughters dared to question any word he spoke. “Ye’re tae be married tae Laird Alistair Stewart. He asked after yer hand specifically.”
Norah was familiar with the name Alistair Stewart, although she had never met the man personally. His reputation in the Highlands was formidable, and he was considered a powerful figure. However, there was little in his reputation that could give her insight into what kind of husband he might be. The mere mention of the word “married” triggered the old woman’s warning in her mind.
She met her father’s gaze, fighting to keep her hands from trembling as she clasped them tightly in her lap. “I dinnae wish tae marry an unknown man, Father. Surely this is far too sudden tae be proper.”
“It does nae matter what ye want, lass. The bride price for ye is handsome indeed, far more than most would give for a second daughter. Ye ken well enough that I’ve nae an heir tae the name o’ the Mcintosh clan, since my only son perished tae yer sister’s carelessness. If I cannae have sons, then at least I’ll have my daughters bring me in-laws and kin by marriage with the wealth and power tae make up for the lack.”
Anger ignited in Norah’s chest. “Do ye nae think ‘tis past time tae stop putting the fault o’ Keith’s death on me and Hazel?”
She rose, fists clenching as she stared at the man who had given her life but less than nothing in terms of care or love. “Aye, Keith died, falling from the cliffs over the loch. And aye, Hazel had care o’ him. But ye ken as well as I what was found among the papers and letters between Roderick Douglas and his brother.”
Her father rose as well, his expression harsh and forbidding. “Mind yer tongue, girl.”
“I’ll nae! For truth deserves tae be spoken, and even more so if ye insist on shutting yer eyes tae it!” Norah snapped the words out with all the ferocity she could find within herself, tired of pretending to be compliant and meek. If she was to be offered in marriage against her will, she would speak her mind and have the truth out for all to hear and let her father do what he would.
She no longer felt like it would be the worst fate in the world to be cast out from her father’s clan. Hazel was safe with Iain MacLeod, and she knew her sister and her sister’s husband would claim her and give her sanctuary without hesitation.
She kept speaking, ignoring the stony expressions of both parents. “The truth is simple enough! Malcolm Douglas wanted yer lands and yer clan, and his brother murdered yer son so that claiming yer eldest daughter would make him heir tae the Mcintosh tartan. But ye dinnae want tae see it because admitting the truth o’ the matter makes ye face that yer treatment o’ Hazel was fair wrong and cruel besides. And facing the truth means admitting ye were taken for a fool by the Douglas clan, tae wed yer daughter tae them when ye ought tae have declared a blood feud instead! Hazel did what ye should have done. She went tae Clan MacLeod and secured ye a better alliance and better kin by marriage than ye managed with all yer spite!”
“Enough!” The word thundered through the office, backed by all the rage her father could bring to it. “Enough of this! It has nae bearing on the matter at hand, and it does nae matter whether ye wish tae be wed or nae. The land and gold that Laird Stewart has promised for ye and yer maidenhead will see this clan among the wealthiest and most prominent in the Highlands!”
Norah felt a chilling sensation as if ice had spread through her veins upon hearing that her maidenhood was a part of the arrangement. If the wedding proceeded and Laird Alistair Stewart discovered that any aspect of the conditions for the promised bride price had not been fulfilled, the consequences would be dire, not only for her but for the entire Clan Mcintosh.
The higher the bride price, the greater the penalties that could be demanded if the obligations secured by it were not met. It was clear that her father, driven by his greed, had not taken this into consideration.
Naturally, her father believed she was still untouched, making him believe the contract would be easily fulfilled.
Refusing the contract or rescinding their agreement would still come at a price, but it would be nothing compared to what Laird Stewart might demand if she went ahead with the wedding, only for him to realize that he had not obtained all that he believed he had purchased.
She bit her lip and faced her father with her head held high. The easiest course of action would be to reveal the truth to her father—that she was no longer a maiden. However, there was no telling what he would do. Knowing his cold and demanding nature, he might attempt to force the marriage through and claim he had no knowledge of her status.
“I dinnae wish tae marry Laird Stewart, nae matter the bride price. I will nae.”
“Ye dinnae have a choice, daughter. Ye’ll marry him, willing or unwilling, and do yer duty tae yer clan and tae me as yer father and yer laird. ‘Tis my right tae choose yer husband, and I have chosen. ‘Tis yer duty tae obey and make the best o’ it.”
Dinnae take a husband chosen for ye, for if ye do, ‘tis a path that ends in yer death at his knife.
The witch’s warning echoed in her mind, and she clenched her jaw, fighting fear and rage and the urge to attack her father and force him to acknowledge her words.
As Norah remembered the few instances when Hazel had spoken about her marriage to Malcolm Douglas and the unpleasant details of their shared marriage bed, a shiver of dread coursed through her. She was determined not to endure such a fate, even without the old woman’s warning echoing in her mind. With her chin held high, she locked eyes with her father, drawing upon every ounce of strength, courage, and fierceness that her sister had instilled in her. Norah was prepared to stand up for herself and take pride in her resolve.
“I’ll nae marry Laird Alistair Stewart, Father. I cannae, and I will nae.” She saw her father’s eyes darken as he stalked forward, and she put a hand on her belt knife in clear warning. Her father shut his mouth with a snap, recognizing it for the threat it was.
Norah stopped in front of him, head held high and voice firm. “Dinnae think tae force me. Tell Laird Stewart whatever ye like on the matter and give me what punishment ye will. But mark my words, on my honor as a daughter o’ the Mcintosh clan and as yer daughter, if ye try tae force me intae this union, I’ll make certain sure ye regret it till yer dying breath. Ye have my oath on that.”
One week later
No matter how many times Torquil MacNab looked at his reflection, the image never changed. And it never became any easier to see.
Studying his reflection in the mirror, Torquil winced at the sight. His gaze shifted over his blue eyes, dark hair, shaggy and tousled from his bed, and his well-formed muscles. There was a time when he would have been considered a handsome man. But all that had changed on the battlefield a few years ago.
Now, all he could see was the scar that slashed across his face from brow to chin, still prominently visible even after years had passed. Additionally, his left arm bore odd angles, a testament to the broken bones and ravaged muscles that had never fully healed.
Just the sight of his scars transported him back to that fateful day, the battle that had concluded with him crashing into a rocky ravine, blinded by blood and tormented by pain. The agony intensified when his skull collided with a stone. He recalled lying there, immobile and barely able to breathe, suffering through the excruciating pain that radiated from his left side where a flail had nearly pulverized his arm and left a trail of destruction across his face.
As the memories flooded back, the image in the mirror wavered, mirroring the turmoil within him.
“Torquil?” The sleepy voice from the direction of the bed brought him back to the present. He blinked twice to drive away the memories, then turned around.
A dark-haired, little maid with generous curves and delicate features lay in his bed, completely bare of anything save the trailing edge of the blanket and a coaxing smile. “Are ye coming back tae bed?”
The suggestive curl of her lips and the seductive stretch that accompanied the words made her meaning clear.
Torquil let out a weary sigh and ran his right hand through his rough mane of hair. He had visited Tristan Cabduh, Iain’s cousin by marriage and one of his closest friends, to discuss matters concerning joint maneuvers and patrols between their clans. Unfortunately, he had been struck by one of the peculiar, splitting headaches that had plagued him since the battle that had left him scarred. As a result, he had retired early from their meeting.
“Nae. I’ve a need tae see Laird Tristan tae finish talk o’ the matters we were discussing last night. I’ve nae more time tae dally.” He eyed her, remembering her entering his chambers and what had transpired between them. “Though I’ll thank ye kindly, lass, for seeing tae my care and easing the ache in my head.”
She smiled at him and rose from the bed, nothing of modesty in her movements as she crossed the space to him and stroked one hand over his cheek. “Och, but ye look fair troubled this morn. Perhaps I could soothe away yer worries over breakfast or before?” She arched an eyebrow at him, pursing her lips in an enticing manner as she took a deep breath, designed to make him aware of her assets.
Torquil grunted and stepped back. She was pretty enough, but he’d never wanted more than casual bedsport with any lass he encountered.
A man understood that a woman would typically be cautious about her cycles and her circumstances when engaged in a casual tryst. However, he was aware of the potential consequences if they were to proceed beyond that and discard caution. The outcome often entailed the birth of abandoned, forsaken children without a clan or kinsmen to claim them, left behind by fathers who had never desired the burden of a child and a wife. Those women became mothers who wanted no involvement in being accompanied by a child who would hinder their prospects of a marriage to a suitable husband.
I’d have been in fair trouble if Liam MacLeod had nae seen me and taken me in tae serve as a playmate for his son and if Iain had nae taken a liking to me and claimed me as kin and shield-brother.
The girl pouted, and Torquil readied himself to deliver one of the many long-rehearsed excuses he had for these situations.
Then the door flew open, revealing Iris Cabduh, Tristan’s wife, carrying a breakfast tray. “Torquil, Tristan told me ye’d been unwell last night, so I came tae check if ye’re feeling better and bring ye some break…fast…”
The words trailed off as Iris suddenly realized she was not alone. Torquil observed as her eyes widened, darting between the naked maid, frozen in a mid-pout and rapidly blushing with embarrassment, and Torquil himself, equally undressed but entirely unfazed by the situation.
For a moment, the room fell into stillness.
Then Iris let out a small shriek of surprise, swiftly turning around to drop the tray she was holding onto a nearby table.
“Gods above, Torquil! Excuse me.”
With that, Iris hastily fled, her face blushing like that of a modest maid rather than the Clan Lady she was. The young maid, on the other hand, dived for the bed, clutching the sheets around her as if they were a feeble shield, as if she anticipated further intrusions at any moment.
Torquil sank into the nearest chair, laughter escaping him until his sides ached.
Iris’s unexpected interruption had effectively put an end to any further amorous advances from the young maid. By the time Torquil had regained his composure, the young woman had almost finished dressing, allowing him to let her go with a gentle apology to soothe any hurt feelings and bring the matter to a close.
Within twenty minutes of the young maid’s departure, Torquil had washed his face, tamed his hair, and dressed himself in a clean kilt, shirt, leggings, sash, belt, and boots. His short sword was securely fastened at his waist, his various smaller knives safely stowed, and he felt a semblance of his former self.
He would never again possess the striking appearance of the handsome Highlander he once was, but he had reclaimed his prowess as a formidable and resolute warrior. That was something to take pride in.
Seeking some information, Torquil casually approached a passing servant before making his way to the garden where Laird Tristan Cabduh and his wife, Iris, were about to partake in their morning meal.
Iris was the first to spot him, her complexion transforming into a lovely shade of rose. Tristan noticed his wife’s blush and turned his gaze toward Torquil. The laird greeted him with a wide grin.
“Torquil, cousin, if ye’re after kidnapping one o’ my maids, I’d thank ye kindly tae nae be traumatizing my wife in the pursuit,” said Tristan, letting out a chuckle.
Torquil snorted a laugh, amused by the gentle jibe from a man he considered a friend as close as kin.
“Yer cousin’s my liege laird and yer kin by marriage, and if ye cannae tell us apart, I’ll think ‘tis yer eyes that have taken damage and nae yer leg.”
Tristan huffed. “My eyes are keen as ever they were, and if ye dinnae ken that, I’ll prove it tae ye in the sparring ring ‘afore ye leave again. But if ye’re going tae be wandering my castle in the altogether and startling the life out o’ my wife, ye’d better be my kin or kith close enough tae nae matter. ‘Tis that or face my sword for the insult.”
“Kith and close as kin, if ye must.” Torquil laughed. “I’ve nae wish tae face yer sword. And as tae yer lady, my apology for the start and for her blushes, though I ken full well she’s nae innocent maid.”
He exhaled. “And speaking o’ the maid, I’m nae after stealing the lass. She simply came tae offer me some comfort and a way tae ease the aching in my head.”
“Well enough. And ye’re better this morn?”
There were many men he would have lied to. Tristan Cabduh wasn’t one of them. Tristan had been his salvation at a time with not even Iain and Liam had been able to reach him. He’d been trapped in the darkness and considering a permanent solution the first time he met Tristan Cabduh, and it had been the laird of the Cabduh clan that had forced him out of the darkness.
It was nearly a season after he’d been found on the battlefield. The wounds had mended but left long, ugly scars seaming his face and his arm. The healers had done their best for his arm, but there was no way to completely mend the shredded muscles or shattered bones. The limb had been left misshapen and weak, with barely even enough strength to grasp a goblet of mead. A blade or a shield was out of the question.
To lose his looks wasn’t the worst thing in the world. But to lose both looks and the strength to serve his laird and the man who was practically a brother to him was unendurable. The healers had said that while some strength might return, he would never regain full function in his arm.
Hearing that, not even Iain’s kindness could bring him out of his despair.
He never knew who had sent a message to the Laird Cabduh, and Tristan had never told him. All he remembered was standing brooding on the rampart, contemplating the ease of a fall over the edge, when a voice as rough as gravel interrupted his thoughts. “That’s nae the way.”
He’d turned to see a slender-built man in a laird’s circlet and a tartan he knew but couldn’t recall right then. He hadn’t cared. “The way o’ what?”
“The way through the dark that holds ye. Ye’re hurting and ye’re angry, and fair enough for both. Yer world’s been turned on its ear, and it’ll be long months, mayhap years, ‘afore ‘tis as mended as may be. But ye’ll lose the months, and yer kith and kin will lose a good man if ye drop off the wall.”
Anger scorched Torquil’s mind. “And what do ye ken o’ the matter?”
“‘Tis a journey I made, and if ye think ‘tis a hardship tae be relearning yer arm, ye can well imagine mine.”
The light of a torch dragged downward to highlight a misshapen knee and scars from hip to ankle. The damage was so severe he couldn’t imagine putting weight on it, let alone walking or climbing the rampart stairs.
Startled from his anger, Torquil looked up into the man’s grim face. “Who are ye?”
“I’m Laird Tristan Cabduh, and my wife is Laird Liam’s dearest niece. The man himself is a mentor and a teacher tae me. I ken what ails ye. If ye’re willing tae let me aid ye, then so I will.”
He shook his head, banishing the memory. “Och, my apologies. ‘Twas woolgathering for a moment.” He recalled the question he’d been asked. “My head’s fair better.”
He took the hot, sweet tea Iris offered him, then a roll stuffed with meat and cheese. “Is there aught else we need tae be discussing about maneuvers and patrols?”
“Nae in particular. We’d discussed the main points o’ the matter ‘afore ye took tae yer bed,” Tristan grinned, “and took a maid tae yer bed, though I’ll say that’s a rare cure for an aching head.”
“Whether it worked as a cure for his head, I cannae say. But in my opinion, I dinnae think it will ease what truly ails ye.” Iris shook her head, a soft and slightly sad smile on her face.
Torquil had a sense of what Iris was alluding to, but he shrugged his shoulder casually and kept his tone light. “What truly ails me cannae be fully mended. But a willing wench now and again for a tumble amid the sheets will do well enough for me.”
“Och, ye ken what I mean.” Iris laid a soft hand on his uninjured shoulder, conscious as her husband and his other true friends were of how little he liked to be touched on his scarred side. “‘Twas nae long ago ye were fretting about Iain’s slipping from lass tae lass in his bed, and ye’re after doing the same. It will nae fill yer life or yer heart any more than it did for him, nae like a proper lover, mayhap even a wife, o’ yer own.”
“Iain needed an heir, for he’s the laird’s son and ‘twas fair close tae being declared laird while his father was ill.” Torquil shrugged his shoulder again. “I’ve nae such concerns and nae wish for a maid in my life for more than a night either.”
Observing Iris’s expression, he shook his head quickly. “It’s nae something I’m thinking o’, Iris, and how I live serves me well enough.”
“As ye like.” Iris dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Will ye be staying for a while, or do Iain and Liam need ye tae return?”
Torquil would have enjoyed staying longer. Tristan was excellent company, and their friendship held a different kind of strength than his bond with Iain. “Iain and Liam would nae mind if I linger, but I’ll need tae be on the road soon in any case. Hazel asked me tae collect her sister Norah from Mcintosh Keep tae bring her for a visit, and I said I would.”
“Good o’ ye.” Iris smiled. “Norah’s a sweet lass. She’ll make a bonny bride for someone.”
Torquil snorted. “I ken where yer going with yer words, and ye can get that notion out o’ yer head right now, Iris Cabduh.”
“And why? The two o’ ye might be well-matched.” She smiled at her husband. “Ye can naysay as ye like, but Tristan and I did nae think we’d be well-set either. Ye ken well enough what Iain thought ‘afore he met Hazel. If ye ask me, I’ve seen many a marriage that might have nae seemed likely that turned intae a love match in the end.”
“Mayhap, but I’ll make the point in counter. She’s a sweet young lass, and ye ken well enough I’m anything but.” Torquil tapped his cheek. “Are ye thinking she deserves tae be stuck with a scarred and battered beast o’ a man like me?”
He didn’t give her chance to refute him. “Even if ye’re right that there’s a lass for me, ‘tis nae like tae be Norah Mcintosh. She’s a bit too sweet for me. I like her company fine at table and when she’s visiting her sister, but a lifetime as her partner? I’d nae last, and I dinnae ken if she would either.”
“If ye say so. It’ll fall out as the gods will.” Iris grinned and shrugged her shoulders.
Tristan huffed. “It will indeed. But in the meantime, there’s patrols tae be ridden and business tae be managed. And ‘afore ye go, will ye spar with me?” He smirked. “I’ve a new step I’ve been meaning tae try on ye.”
Torquil felt an answering smile curl the undamaged corner of his mouth. “Well enough. I think I can manage a quick bout with ye.”
As they finished their meal and made their way towards the practice yard, Torquil wore a grim smile. In his mind, he believed that young women like Norah Mcintosh were better off with men who were complete in body and mind, individuals who possessed a genuine history and a true clan by their side. Moreover, children deserved a father who was more than a battle-hardened warrior, someone who had experienced the love and guidance of a true father figure. Considering the idea of a wife and children in his own home only led to darkness and heartache.
Torquil had found contentment in his current state, and he was convinced that it was best for everyone involved.
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