Highlander’s Game of Desire (Preview)
Laird Arran MacMaster stood on the battlefield as the cries of dying men rose around him.
He held his sword in a death-grip, clasping it as though it were something alive and venomous, like a serpent who would take his life with one kiss of its fangs. The clash of steel and the blast of gunshots assaulted his ears from every angle; the sound filled the air with a foulness that twisted somewhere between his ribs.
One of his soldiers turned to look at him, locking eyes right before an English blade savagely ran him through from behind. He watched as the light dimmed in his soldier’s eyes; the young man was dead before his knees hit the ground.
At that moment, the individual sounds of the battle began to blur together, folding in on themselves until they became a buzzing in Arran’s ears. His grip tightened on his blade until he was certain the bones in his knuckles would fracture, but he felt the will to lift his sword flee from him.
Memories began to flood into his mind, filling his thoughts with images even bloodier than his surroundings. Another battle: one that haunted him each time his hand strayed to the hilt of his blade.
Arran’s mind raced back, though he desperately willed it not to, plunging him in the past until he was unable to register the danger that surrounded him. The dead Scot who lay before him now morphed into a hundred other Scottish soldiers who died following Arran into battle, only to transform into a thousand Englishmen who he had slain trying to protect them. Arran’s lungs burned with every ragged breath as the memory of his bloodiest battle overtook him completely.
He could nearly feel the bodies beneath his feet again; so vivid was the vision that passed before him. It blended the present with the past seamlessly until his reality was erased altogether and replaced with another battle from another time.
A mountain of bodies. A world of gore. And no one left standing but Arran.
No one left to hold the grief and the pain and the horror but Arran.
There lay his men at his feet, their eyes open but without any sign of a spark. The glassy gaze of young and old soldiers alike pierced him accusingly, men who had trusted him with their lives.
And there, on top of the mountain of ruin and death as though he were the crowning jewel, another body was strewn.
His mouth was open in a tragic parody of the smile that Arran knew so well. No longer did those eyes, once brown, smile at him. No longer did those hands pat his back when Arran eventually managed a checkmate.
The warmth had been drawn away from the man who had been his loyal friend in his youth, and now he lay lifeless and cold, an ugly, red gash across his pale throat.
Guilt seeped into him, soaking him through, and Arran wished nothing more than to give in to the reaper’s embrace.
Arran blinked hard and looked down at himself, blood on his hands, chest, and legs. A scream built up inside of him, and he opened his mouth to let it out, but he was unable to breathe, unable to move.
Arran felt the panic weighing down on him, about to engulf him, when the sound of steel-on-steel cut through his thoughts and he was brought back to the present. The vision singed at the corners and burned away, taking to the air like the black smoke of the war flames that glowed in the night around them.
“What are ye doin’?” his brother Clyde shouted from in front of him. “Ye’ll be the death o’ us both if ye dinnae pull yerself together!”
Arran felt his breath rush out of him. The Englishman who had killed his soldier lay dead at his feet; Clyde was yanking his swords from the man’s chest.
From his left side, yet another enemy broke away from the horde to swipe at Arran with his rapier, a swift motion that he would not have been able to dodge had he still been frozen in his haze.
“Thank ye, brother,” Arran managed to say. “I can always count on ye tae look out fer me.”
“Ye’ll need more’n just me watchin’ yer back, with yer sort o’ luck,” Clyde said hastily, fending off his assailant.
He raised his blade high, readying himself as he dug his boots into the dirt in a battle stance. He was ready; he could do this. Arran repeated those words in his mind again and again until they were a mantra, a chant, a prayer.
The enemy soldier before Arran sneered at him without speaking and then lunged forward, but Arran was prepared. He took this small opportunity to kick the man’s legs out from under him; the soldier went down easily, not expecting any sort of strategy from a Scot. Arran’s blade plunged downward, straight into his enemy’s heart, killing him instantly.
Arran was about to turn and say something triumphant to his brother, desperate to show Clyde that his past had not erased the man he once was when a bolt of pain struck him from behind.
A cry tore from his lungs, and he felt a stream of warm liquid down his back. An English soldier’s sword found its home in his shoulder. Another harsh scream of pain exited his lips as the blade was ripped free of his flesh, only to swipe at his left leg. The stinging metal caught him in the calve, blood seeping through his pant leg, and Arran was brought to his knees. He gasped in pain.
“Scottish dogs,” the man snarled, advancing on Arran. “Not fit for the dirt you’ll lie in, the likes o’ you aren’t.”
The man’s grimy hand strayed to his pistol greedily as though he was hungry to take Arran’s life. Arran closed his eyes instinctively, waiting for the wicked sound of the blast.
But it did not come.
Instead, a guttural cry sounded from before him. He opened his eyes to an arrow as thick as his thumb protruding from the English soldier’s chest. Another arrow whizzed through the air, planting itself directly beside its fellow. The man went down with the look of surprise still on his face.
“Seems ye really do have a guardian angel,” Clyde said breathlessly, at his side. A wide and roguish smile was plastered across his face, shining through the muck and blood. “But look, brother! See how these cowards run?”
Arran did see. One of the British must have called for a retreat; the enemy soldiers were turning to flee one by one, some tossing their weapons to the ground in their haste. The men’s shouting turned from collective cries of agony to desperate shouts as they raced through the woods.
“They’re headed toward their camp,” Arran said. “I can see the glow o’ their fires still.”
“We should follow them then,” Clyde said. “Tha’ wound doesnae look like one ye should ignore, brother. We need a healer, and we need one fast.”
“We cannae risk attackin’ them again simply tae save my life,” Arran said. “Ye ken that. We have tae take care o’ the men—”
“An’ who d’ye expect will do that?” Clyde asked. “We have no healer, as I said. Dinnae be so stubborn and listen tae me fer once in yer life. Ye willnae make it far wi’ that leg wound, and that gash on yer back has already soaked through yer shirt. This is serious, Arran. The clan needs ye alive.”
Arran considered his younger brother’s words, but Clyde did not wait for him to think it over. He waved over two young men, each one broad-shouldered and stout of arm. “Douglas! Colin! Help the Laird onto his horse,” Clyde said. “The rest o’ ye, follow me, an’ let’s take tha’ camp!”
The men looked to Arran for affirmation; each soldier still standing turned their heads toward him, waiting. Arran sighed, blazing a hand through his short black hair, and nodded, waving a defeated hand toward the glow of the distant fire.
In an instant, Clyde and the rest of his men were behind the Englishmen, roaring with their weapons held aloft, and Arran was left alone with Colin and Douglas, feeling foolish and unneeded. He knew that his brother was simply trying to offer him a hand and aid him, but Arran wished more than anything that he didn’t need help at all.
But his traumatic memories had caught up with him, and worse still, on the battlefield this time. If Clyde had not been there, Arran knew that he would have lost his life tonight.
Douglas and Colin did their best to help him onto his horse, but it proved to be a bit of a struggle with Arran’s wounds. When he was finally mounted correctly on his steed, he nudged the horse in the direction Clyde and the rest of his men had taken.
“Come, lads,” Arran said to his two soldiers. “We have a camp tae storm.”
With that, the horse was off in a slow trot. Though Arran was leaving the battlefield behind with a victory in hand, the feeling of dread had not released him. In fact, he felt more and more as though he were riding to his ruin with every step they took.
Even before Katherine Evans heard the shouting ringing through the trees, she knew that she was doomed.
“I tried to tell you that this was the worst place to set camp,” she said fervently. “Lighting a fire within eyesight of a village was perhaps the most brainless idea anyone could have come up with.”
The soldier who she was eagerly trying to tell off did not seem to be listening to her, which only added annoyance on top of the terrible, sinking fear she felt in every nerve. The man had an ear to the forest, his face contorted in concentration.
The shouts were mingled, a mixture of frightened British soldiers and triumphant Scottish voices, accompanied by a symphony of hoofbeats and footfalls. Katherine nudged the soldier, bringing the man out of his thoughts.
“Well?” she asked. “What do we do? Come on, soldier, think!”
The man blinked at her, shaking his head. Before he could speak, a commanding officer, flecked in blood, raised his voice over the others.
“Retreat!” the man bellowed. “Every man to the forest! Evacuate the camp!”
“Come on, miss,” the soldier at her side said. “If we don’t run soon, they’ll be upon us!”
Katherine shook her head, her hands wringing in front of her. She turned away from the fire, toward the wounded tent where she had previously been working tirelessly.
“They’re already upon us,” she said. “There’s no way we can flee now, not with all these injured men. I’ve been a nurse long enough to know that they won’t make it very far at all.”
Her gaze found her tent again, and before she knew it, she was pulling back the canvas and diving into the shadows. Hope blossomed within her, though she knew she shouldn’t entertain it.
Perhaps they won’t see me here. Oh, I do hope they won’t check!
Inside, she knew it was foolish to allow this feeling any space inside her mind or heart. The Scotsmen had proven themselves to be brutes time and time again. Katherine knew very well how merciless they could be; she saved her hope for the men in the infirmary. Perhaps they, at least, would be allowed to live. Katherine was certain that anyone caught fleeing would be struck down right away.
She closed her eyes, feeling her heart thudding inside her breast, hammering in her fear. The voices of the Scots were drawing near, closer and closer every moment. She steepled her hands in prayer, closed her eyes, and simply waited.
She did not have to wait long.
The men’s voices conquered the night, spreading through the camp as they filed through the tents. Katherine heard the canvas flap of other tents down the row being whipped back and shouts of the Scotts as they rounded up her wounded soldiers out of their cots. Her heart fell like a stone, but she did not hear anyone draw a blade, nor did any shot ring out into the night.
“Is this everyone?” one of the Scotts asked. He sounded quite young to be in such a bloody battle, but Katherine had nursed many English soldiers back to health that could be his age, if not younger.
“Yes, you bastards,” one of her men said. “Yes, that’s everyone.”
“Are ye certain? Ye came all the way out here with an army ‘n no healer? I dinnae think I believe that.” The man’s voice was full of poison and urgency. He sounded desperate and dangerous. “I’ll ask ye once more, but maybe I’ll phrase it in a way ye understand. Where are ye hidin’ yer healer?”
Katherine heard nothing but the fires blazing, crackling in unnatural silence. The soldier did not speak, and for a moment, Katherine thought that their enemy would simply let the subject go. She was proven wrong when the sound of steel being drawn struck her ears; her stomach dropped, and she screwed her eyes shut tight.
“Speak or die.”
This time, the man didn’t hesitate, as she knew he wouldn’t. She hadn’t spent enough time in this particular camp to form any bonds with any of the soldiers. In fact, Katherine was surprised that the man had not shed light on her hiding place right away.
“In the tent there,” the soldier sputtered. “But don’t hurt her, m’lord. We surrender, don’t we, lads?”
A chorus of murmured agreement lifted in defeated voices around the camp. Katherine’s heartbeat was like a war drum in her chest, and her right hand strayed to her left ring finger, feeling for the cold band that she still wore even now. Four years of missing her lost love would surely come to an end right now, this moment.
This is it. This is how I lose my life. Oh, Logan, my dear husband, I am only sorry that I cannot carry on for our cause any longer.
The sound of horse hooves plodding in the forest made Katherine sit up straighter.
“Brother,” the first voice said. “Are you well?”
There came a low response in a voice steeped in heavy baritone. She could not quite make it out; whoever had spoken was strained in pain. Katherine had much experience with men who put on a brave face despite their injuries; she knew when a soldier was suffering in silence.
Before she could fall into her thoughts any longer, the canvas tent flap was jerked aside, and she was staring face to face with a young man with long brown hair. The man did not hesitate for a second before he reached in to savagely grab her by her forearm.
“Let go of me, you brute!” she said, twisting in his grasp.
As he dragged her from her hiding place, her eyes met those of the soldier who had given her away. He looked down at his boots in his shame, but Katherine could not fault him. The man had advocated for her safety, after all, and it was apparent that these enemy soldiers would not hesitate to slit the man’s throat if he refused to cooperate.
And hadn’t she come here to save their lives?
She breathed out a steady sigh as she did her best to keep her fear held below water. The man who held her captive released her arm when she jerked away from him; she supposed that he knew she would not, could not run.
“Are ye the healer?” the man on horseback asked, a deep frown cut into his face.
“Yes,” Katherine said, trying to gather up her dignity.
For the first time, Katherine truly looked at him. She was surprised by how handsome he was, but what truly shocked her was his eyes. Where she expected to see twin pits, flinty and cold, there was instead an emerald, green gaze looking back at her. His mouth was a slash of pain, carved into his face like a statue’s resolute expression, but she found that she went back to his eyes, again and again, enthralled by the uncommon coloration of them.
It was only after she reminded herself that this soldier was an enemy that she was able to tear herself away.
She noted that the man slid down from his horse, shakily, though his weakness was barely perceptible. She wondered where his injuries were, but when her eyes trailed down from his shoulder to his leg, she saw the deep crimson staining his clothing.
“D’ye have yer supplies on hand?” he asked, his deep baritone gruff in his strain to keep the pain pushed down.
Katherine nodded; it would be foolish to lie. It was obvious that her healing supplies would be nearby.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were just testing me to see how truthful I am.
“You need help,” she said, choosing to speak before him. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? For me to heal your wounds?” She crossed her arms solidly across her chest and put on her bravest face, though inside terror gripped her heart like a vice. “And what if I refuse?”
The man took a step toward her, his leg buckling ever so slightly. She saw his hand twitching; she wondered if his fingers wanted to fly to his wounds or his blade for her insolence. The soldier took one long stride toward her, and Katherine felt her nerves bunch up on themselves.
“Either ye help me now,” the man said dangerously, “or every single one o’ these men dies righ’ before yer eyes. Yer choice. Now, which is it?”
Katherine swallowed hard again, biting down on her lip. It was not a hard choice to make, but to hear those threatening words levied at her was something she was not used to. As a war medic, Katherine made much contact with her soldiers.
But never the Scotts, not directly.
Not like this.
“Yer silence tells me all I need tae know,” the man said, unsheathing his sword. “Verra well. Have it yer way.”
“No!” she cried. “Please, stop. I-I’ll help you. There’s no need for that. No one else needs to die tonight.”
The man lowered his weapon, his arm shaking with the weight of his blade. Katherine looked around at his soldiers and wagered that she was the only one who could see how much pain the man was truly in. Her trained eye as a nurse was sharp; she could spot a man concealing an injury at thirty paces. Even the greatest actor did not escape Katherine’s skillful gaze.
Instead of giving her a reply, the man nodded to her once, ducking as he entered the tent behind her in silence.
As Katherine followed him, she steadied herself. Only one thing was certain; her life would never be the same after this night.
The woman was furious to have to tend to him, that much Arran could tell.
Inside her tent, she barely spoke a word. Arran sat there in silence, watching her ready her horsehair and needle, her alcohol that she would use to clean his wounds with. Even now, her hands were wringing water out of a damp rag with a strength that told him she’d much rather replace the cloth with his neck.
“Sit still,” she commanded. “And strip your shirt. I’ll need to look at that leg first, but I may as well see how much damage we’re truly talking about.”
He did as she said, surprised at the ferocity in her voice. Arran hadn’t realized Sassenach women could house such fiery spirits within them; she nearly seemed like a woman born and bred in Scotland herself, with the scowl she wore so clearly fixed to her full lips. She tucked two tight brown curls behind both ears and narrowed her bright blue eyes as she assessed the damage. Flecks of crimson, his blood, stained her ivory skin.
His pant leg was hiked up, and he jumped slightly when he felt her light touch brush against his wound. The enemy’s rapier had cut him deep, but not enough to be fatal. Or so he hoped. In truth, Arran knew very little about healing. He knew only that the wound seemed to be bleeding less and less, though the pain still pulsed throughout his body.
He hissed when the alcohol was splashed against his skin. The towel was pressed hard against his skin; it seemed almost as though she were trying to hurt him, though he knew that cleaning the wound was vital. Instead of hurling any accusations at her, Arran opted to compliment her instead.
“Ye’ve got quite a skillful hand,” he said, wincing as she began to stitch the wound in his leg up. “Ye mus’ have been in this line o’ work fer quite some time.”
“Several years, yes,” she said curtly. Her eyes did not meet his. As she finished his stitches, she snapped the horsehair free from the needle with more force than he thought she needed.
The young woman got to work on his back without another word. She worked swiftly, tutting to herself absent-mindedly at the state of him. Arran wondered if it were a habit that she’d formed throughout her time as a nurse. She seemed lost in her work as she scrubbed the blood, dirt and sweat from his shoulder injury.
The clan can use a healer with as much skill as this lass possesses. Maybe this battle was a boon after all.
When the healer was done with him, he stood and let his eyes fall across her. Her curly brown hair fell across her face, barely masking the fear still present in her light blue eyes.
He was about to order her out when the tent flap lifted, and Clyde stepped in. His younger brother tried to conceal the sigh of relief he let out, but Arran saw it all the same. His long brown hair clung to his neck and shoulders in strands. Guilt twisted within Arran’s heart; Clyde had exerted himself so much because of his failings as a leader.
“Tha’ was fast,” Clyde said. “Seems ye know what ye’re doin’, Sassenach.”
“Aye,” Arran said. “Well enough that we’ll be takin’ her back with us. We cannae do withou’ a healer any longer. Tonight has shown me tha’, at least.”
“Glad tae see ye’re listenin’ tae me fer once,” Clyde said. He smiled, yet Arran could still see worry clinging to his younger brother’s expression.
“What?” the woman asked. “You’re… you’re not going to let me go? But it’s customary for healers to be spared!”
“Aye,” Arran said. “And spared ye will be. But ye will be comin’ wi’ us, like it not.”
He stood then and nudged her outside, Clyde following at his heels. She protested all the while; even another shove, slightly harder than the first, did not quiet her.
“You savage!” she exclaimed. “Barbarian! How dare you put your hands on me?”
Arran couldn’t help but smile at her through the blinding pain in his back and leg. Her rage was almost coming off her in waves; he had to admit to himself that it was a little impressive. Even surrounded by enemies who could snap her as easily as they could a handful of straw, she refused to give in to the fear that was surely eating her up inside.
“Bind the rest o’ these dogs,” Arran said. “They’ll return tae the castle wi’ us as prisoners. Their lives will be spared; anyone who lifts a hand toward them will face my wrath.”
It took a little bit of effort to pull himself back up on his horse; colors flashed before his eyes as the pain surged up high, white-hot like a bolt of lightning. It softened just as quickly as it came, and he righted himself upon his steed.
The healer was bound but rode on the back of one of the horses. She sat side-saddle as though she could not bear to touch the other man.
We’ll see how far tha’ will get her.
Katherine did not stop trying to persuade the men to release her even though she knew it was absolutely hopeless.
“You’re going to regret this,” she said to the Laird. “I swear it upon my family’s good name. My father is a well-respected lord and will not rest until he has seen to it that I am free, you tyrant!”
To her indignation, she watched as the Laird and the younger man, who bore a striking resemblance to each other, shared a laugh at her words. The sound was derisive and cruel to her ears.
“No proud Scotsman would ever be afraid o’ the likes o’ the English,” the Laird said.
His eyes reflected the fire that danced around them, brighter with every English tent lit aflame. He looked to Katherine like an avenging angel, locked in an eternal bloody battle; if she had not known that he was the enemy, a Laird capable of the most violent of acts, a man who had taken a healer prisoner, she would have liked to look a little longer into his green eyes.
“Well,” she said. “You should be afraid. When my father’s men come for me, they won’t leave a soul alive, that much I shall tell you now.”
The Laird laughed again, a harsh sound that looked unnatural, coming from someone who looked so somber. Somewhere within his gaze, Katherine saw a sadness that took her by surprise. She peered closer, as best as she could from her angle astride the horse. The man holding the reins who sat in front of her blocked much of her view, but the Laird did seem to be sorrowful or perhaps nervous.
There was what looked to be a myriad of emotions that played within his expression. She also could not fathom how such a ruthless man could find enough mercy in his heart to spare their lives.
By all rights, these men should be dead right now. It was only what I’d expected. I wonder what he plans to do with us.
She took one look back at the captives; each one wore an expression of defeat and misery. The youngest looked no more than twenty, his hands bound at the wrists behind his back and his hair hanging down into his face. Katherine felt sorrow well up within her as she watched the prisoner trip over a stray rock and fall face-first into the dirt.
“C’mon, filth,” one of the guards sneered. “Walk faster. We won’ get anywhere if ye dinnae pick up yer pace. Or maybe ye wan’ the Laird tae march ye tae death.”
The guard prodded the young man with his longbow, nudging him hard in the ribs. Again, he struck the boy, who met Katherine’s eyes helplessly. An ugly laugh escaped the guard, and fury boiled within her. She was about to open her mouth to demand the man stop when the Laird turned his head, rage in his eyes.
He whirled his horse around, a well-muscled black creature that radiated power, and advanced on the guard who struck the young prisoner. Katherine was surprised at how angry he was; it was as though he were defending his own men from harm and not the enemy.
“Did ye no’ hear my words, or did ye deliberately choose tae ignore them?” he asked the guard. “I said tha’ no one is tae lay a hand on the captives. I didnae think I had to specify to imbeciles like ye that tha’ includes weapons. Do I make myself clear?”
The guard looked surprised but cowed. He nodded, slinging the bow back around him with his eyes on his Laird. “Aye, Laird Arran,” he said. “Apologies. I didnae mean anythin’ by it.”
“See tae it tha’ ye keep it tha’ way,” the Laird said.
So, Arran is his name, Katherine thought to herself. He seems to be honorable, from what I can tell. I can at least give the man that.
Laird Arran nudged his horse lightly, and the beast trotted past her, taking the lead once more. She watched him conversing quietly with the younger man, who seemed more and more like the Laird’s brother.
“Seems even some o’ our men need tae remember who’s in charge now and then,” Arran said. He shivered once, hard enough that his entire body was taken with tremors. Katherine watched as he pulled his coat up and around his shoulders.
She could barely distinguish what exactly he was saying, but she found that she could pick out his voice easily. This time though, something about his words seemed off, slurred. Instead of the crisp baritone, tinged with agony, that was his distinguishing feature, the Laird sounded nearly drunk, as though he were trudging through a dream.
It seemed that the young Scot that accompanied the Laird had noticed as well. Katherine watched as the man’s eyebrows dipped low in concern, and he peered at Arran cautiously. He was saying something to the Laird, but Katherine could not hear what it was.
It was a question. The Laird was nodding now, but his head had begun to droop. Katherine’s mind thought back to his wounds; he had lost quite a lot of blood. Even though she were certain she’d been able to stitch him up before he lost too much, something seemed off still about the man.
Goodness, the strength of this brute… I’ve almost never seen anything like it, and I’ve been in the presence of many a wounded soldier. He keeps going, though that leg wound may have been fatal had I not gotten to it in time.
She was about to mention this to the Scotsman ahead of her on the horse, but shouts sounded from the front of the group before she could.
The horse that the Laird was previously atop stood with no rider; it tossed its black mane impatiently at men crowding below at its hooves.
The Laird had fallen from his horse; his face was pale, and a light sheen of sweat clung to his features.
“The healer!” someone cried. “Bring the healer! The Laird willnae wake!”
Katherine watched them haul the Laird up by his arms.
She could not help but wonder if she could save this man or if it were too late.
She could not help but wonder why she wanted to save him.
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