The Laird’s Healing Touch (Preview)
The scent of alcohol hung heavily in the air of the dimly-lit tavern. Tables laden with food and goblets were scattered around the room, where people engaged in lively conversations fueled by ale. Amidst the chatter, Iain MacThomas found himself engrossed in a conversation, attempting to set his cup on the table but missing, causing the unconsumed liquid to spill over him. Instantly, his clothes were soaked, sticky fluid permeating the fabric and his skin.
“Ye must have holes in yer hands,” Cormac quipped. “This table has seen more ale than yer mouth.”
At moments like these, Iain questioned why Cormac was counted among his closest friends. Together with Cormac’s twin brother, Ellair, they frequented this table in the tavern almost every night for drinks and, in Iain’s case, company of women. At least Ellair was quick to assist, summoning the serving girl to provide a cloth for drying.
“He’s had a long night already,” Lachlan chimed in with a teasing grin. “Handle him with care.”
“Every night is a long night for Iain,” Cormac added.
“I dinnae ken why I come here with ye,” Iain grumbled. “I preferred when Lachlan stayed home with his lass.”
It had been a while since Lachlan had joined them for their nightly outings, preferring to spend time with his new wife, Ava. Given the hardships they’d endured at the hands of Lachlan’s father, Iain understood his cousin’s desire to be close to the woman he loved, even though he himself shied away from such attachments.
Accepting the offered cloth from the serving wench, Iain smiled at her. She was young and appealing, with round eyes and an inviting smile of her own. Iain allowed his fingers to linger on hers momentarily, a slight brush of contact passing between them. This gesture was common for him, whether with this girl or others; he sought out companionship based on the night’s mood. Sometimes he desired a redhead like her, and at other times, a blonde or a brunette. The tavern’s ample selection of serving wenches allowed him such indulgence, a significant reason why he frequented the establishment.
Lachlan broke the silence with a serious inquiry. “When will ye consider settling down and marrying? Don’t ye think it’s time to find a lass?”
This query was all too familiar, having come from many sources before, including Lachlan. So many individuals seemed intent on arranging a marriage for him that it almost felt as though they were conspiring against him.
“I’ve told ye many times I dinnae wish tae marry,” Iain replied. “Why dae ye insist on askin’ me this? I am perfectly happy the way things are.”
“And what happens when yer too old for these lasses?” Lachlan said. “And what about bairns? Dinnae ye wish tae have yer own offspring?”
Iain sighed and commandeered Lachlan’s cup, promptly emptying it, much to Lachlan’s chagrin. Iain considered this an act of kindness, preventing Lachlan from incurring Ava’s ire by returning home inebriated. Furthermore, the resulting frustration would be directed at Iain rather than Lachlan.
“Ye’re right,” Ellair interjected from his place beside his tankard. With fair hair and blue eyes mirroring his twin, Cormac, Ellair’s perpetual smile was the distinguishing feature between them. “Ye’ll be a laird one day, requiring a wife and heir.”
“Aye, I ken why I dinnae wish to marry,” Iain affirmed.
It was a sore subject for him, one he preferred not to broach with anyone, not even his close friends and family. However, it seemed to be a recurring theme, haunting him at the most inconvenient times.
Lachlan pushed further. “But ye’ve seen yer father. Witnessed how he suffers. It’s not the fate ye want for yerself.”
Iain’s response was swift and firm, a reflection of his deeply held reservations. “Ye’ve all seen my father’s pain. That’s the last thing I desire.”
The painful memory of his mother’s murder, witnessed in his childhood, haunted him. Not only did it scar Iain, but it also left his father, Laird Angus MacThomas, a shadow of his former self. Iain wanted nothing to do with the lairdship, associated with responsibility and enmity. He was determined to evade it indefinitely.
“He’s doin’ well,” Iain assured him. “He looks better every day.”
“Good, good,” Ellair well-known smile almost met his ears. “It doesnae hurt that he willnae have tae fight the Robertsons anymore.”
“I wouldnae be so certain about that,” Cormac said with a sigh, shoulders sagging as though the conversation was an invisible weight on him. “Aye, they made a pact tae stop, but I wouldnae be surprised if the Robertsons dinnae keep their word.”
Iain was worried about the same thing. He had been worried ever since his father proposed the agreement, asking the laird of the other clan to cease their fighting and make peace with each other. His father was a reasonable and wise man, and so Iain knew he would never attack first, but the same couldn’t be said for the Robertsons.
“Dae ye think they’ll attack again?” Lachlan asked, worry seeping into his tone.
“I dinnae ken,” Iain said. “I hope they willnae but who among us kens why the feud started in the first place?”
It was something that began a long time ago, when all of them were only children, and neither Laird MacThomas nor his advisors had been very helpful with explaining the start of that feud. All Iain and the others knew was that the hatred between the two clans ran deep, and it was unlikely to ever stop.
It wasn’t so uncommon, after all, for clans to try and destroy each other. There was plenty to consider, from history and politics to personal grudges, details Iain had never managed to piece together fully. Perhaps one day, if he really was forced to step up and be the laird of the clan, he would find out the reason.
“If they dae, we’ll be ready,” Cormac said in that usual, serious tone of his, full of intensity, that made him sound much older than his twenty-nine years.
For all the four of them liked to drink and have fun, Iain knew they were serious when it came to clan matters. He was glad to have men like them by his side, to never worry about their loyalty or their bravery.
Silence fell over them for a few moments, as Ellair patted Cormac’s shoulder. Then, Lachlan spoke again, so quietly that Iain barely heard him over the loud conversations around him.
“I still think ye should find a wife.”
Iain groaned, letting his head fall in his hands. He turned his head to the side to glare at his cousin, cursing under his breath.
“I’m very happy with Ava,” Lachlan continued. “I only want ye tae find the same happiness.”
“Ye went through plenty o’ trouble afore ye even had the chance tae be happy with Ava,” Iain reminded him. “Yer own faither wanted tae kill ye, in case ye forgot.”
Lachlan’s journey to happiness had been fraught with turmoil. As Ava’s original intended spouse, Iain had stood in his stead, due to Lachlan’s father’s machinations. The same man had ordered Lachlan to kill Iain, further complicating matters. This inauspicious beginning concluded with Lachlan’s father’s death, eventually leaving Ava and Lachlan in marital bliss.
Iain could hardly call that a happy start to their romance. It was a sad, bloody affair, ending in the death of Lachlan’s father. Even if Ava and Lachlan were happy now and perfect for each other, Iain didn’t want to go through anything similar, either.
“I remember,” Lachlan assured him, his tone pinched for once, lips pursing into a thin line. “But now everythin’ is fine. Ava loves me, and I love her even more. We’re happy. Ye can have the same thing for yerself, Iain.”
With a resigned sigh, Iain pushed his chair back and stood. Running a hand through his raven-black hair, he decided he’d heard enough. He couldn’t tolerate another minute of their well-intentioned advice on marriage’s virtues.
Furthermore, his attire was soaked with ale, the cloth provided by the serving wench inadequate for mopping up the mess. He needed to address the issue before the stench of stale ale clung to him.
“I think it’s time for me tae find a lass for the night,” he said, tossing the cloth on the table. “Unlike ye, I still ken how tae enjoy meself.”
Iain barely lingered near the table long enough to catch Lachlan’s muttered reply before making his way to his room upstairs. However, before reaching the privacy of his quarters, he paused, scanning the room for the serving wench who had aided him earlier. Meeting her gaze, Iain flashed a smile and nodded toward his room, assuming she would find him there.
After securing the door to his room, Iain took a moment to lean against it, inhaling deeply. Discussions about his future drained him, no matter their brevity. The reality was inescapable—he and his father were aging. Despite his best efforts to evade it, his destiny was clear: the mantle of the lairdship. Regardless, he could postpone the inevitable, shunning contemplation and discourse on the matter until absolutely necessary.
Pushing away from the door, Iain started undressing, his brows furrowing at the lingering aroma of ale. Stripped down to his waist, he approached the washbasin to cleanse himself. Just as he began the task, the door swung open, admitting the serving girl. Her gaze moved appreciatively over his torso.
“Leitis,” Iain said, turning to face her. “Ye look bonnie tonight.”
“I look bonnie every night,” Leitis replied, approaching him and encircling her arms around his neck. “Ye just dinnae notice because yer always with someone else.”
“Jealous, are ye?” Iain chuckled, shaking his head. He would prefer she wasn’t, as his aim was to enjoy himself without fostering undue attachments.
“It’s yer loss,” Leitis said with a shrug. “Why should I care what ye dae?”
Her response was reassuring; it wouldn’t do for her to become attached. Leitis was one of the tavern’s more attractive girls, possessing a charming countenance and inviting curves. It would be unfortunate to curtail their interactions.
As he leaned in for a kiss, something caught Iain’s attention, halting his advance. Initially attributing it to a fleeting sound, he dismissed it. However, the noise persisted, prompting him to withdraw and scan the room, searching for the source.
“What is it?” Leitis asked, hands on her hips as she looked at Iain expectantly.
“Dae ye hear that?” he asked her.
“I dinnae hear anythin’.”
“I’m certain I heard something.”
“I dinnae hear anythin’,” Leitis repeated and approached Iain once more, grabbing his hands to place them on her hips. Had it been any other time, Iain would have tightened his grip and pulled her to the bed, but now he stood there, limp, ears straining to hear the sound again.
When he didn’t respond to Leitis’ coaxing, she let go of him with a sigh and headed for the door. “Call me if ye want tae actually dae somethin’ with me.”
With that, she was gone, but Iain couldn’t even bring himself to care. Instead, he started searching for the sound again, pressing his ear against the wall to see if it came from next door.
It sounds like someone’s in pain.
No matter how hard he looked, though, he couldn’t find anything—or rather anyone—at least until his foot caught on the rug on the floor as he paced the room, revealing what seemed like a trapdoor.
There’s somethin’ under the room?
Iain had always assumed the stairs under his room were hollow but empty, but now he could tell that wasn’t the case. There was another room there, most likely a tiny one that was just as wide as the stairs, though he could not imagine a use for it.
Startled, he wielded his dirk, gripping the handle and hesitating momentarily before throwing it open. Below, bathed in the soft glow of his room’s candles, lay a striking young woman, her grey eyes fixed upon him with a blend of fury and intensity.
A few hours earlier
The castle hallway lay empty, though it wouldn’t remain so for long if Billie and Keira persisted in their incessant chatter. Evangeline sighed, shut the door, and turned to face her two sisters, arms crossed over her chest.
“Will ye stop?” she hissed, keeping her voice as hushed as possible. The last thing she needed was for someone passing by her chambers to overhear their conversation at this late hour. “What’s troubling ye?”
“We’re concerned that yer tryin’ tae leave the castle, of course!” Billie said, also trying to keep quiet, even as her voice turned shrill from her worry. “Why must ye leave so late at night? What if somethin’ happens tae ye?”
“Naething will happen,” Evangeline assured her. “I will only be gone for a few hours and then I’ll return. I’m nae goin’ far.”
Evangeline only needed to reach a cottage near the castle to assist the woman who had sent her a letter earlier that day. The woman was in labor and needed help urgently. There was no one else who could aid her except Evangeline.
“Ye dinnae ken what might happen,” Keira chimed in. “Billie is right. Ye should stay here and go tomorrow.”
“And what if tomorrow is too late?” Evangeline asked. “I cannae leave her all alone. I must go and help.”
Evangeline believed wholeheartedly that nothing would befall her. The cottage was relatively close, and her familiarity with the land from gathering her healing supplies—herbs and roots—made her confident. Additionally, their clan was secure. She had no reason to fear; nothing and no one could deter her.
Her response caused her sisters to pause momentarily, though their argument seemed far from resolved. She had little patience for this right now; they could either support her or step aside.
She looked at Billie, the one who resembled her the most with her fair hair and grey eyes, and her desire to become a healer, like she was. The three of them, along with the youngest, Abigail, looked eerily alike, even for sisters, but it was Billie who had always been the closest to Evangeline.
“Do ye understand, Billie?” she asked. “Why I must go?”
For a moment, Billie hesitated, but then she gave Evangeline a small nod. “I dae,” she said. “But it still worries me tae think that ye’ll be out there all on yer own.”
“If the two o’ ye are so worried, go and sleep with Abigail and leave me tae dae what I must,” Evangeline said. “At least dinnae get in me way. But if ye wish tae help me, then ye must dae so now. There’s nae any time left tae spare. I should have gone tae her already, and yet here I am, arguin’ whether it’s safe.”
Once again, neither of her sisters spoke for a short time. After a few moments, Billie and Keira exchanged a look, coming to a silent agreement.
“Alright,” Keira said. “We’ll help ye. But ye must promise me ye’ll be careful. If there is any sign o’ trouble—”
“I promise tae be careful,” Evangeline said hurriedly, already heading for the door. “Alright . . . if ye spot any guards, ye must dae yer best tae distract them so I can leave. Can ye dae that?”
“It wouldnae be the first time,” Keira remarked as they followed her out of the chambers. Luckily, the hallway remained quiet, and they encountered no footsteps as they tiptoed through the castle.
Evangeline wouldn’t be in this situation if her father wasn’t so overprotective, always thinking he knew best for everything, especially his daughters. While she understood his concerns and fears for their safety, she also had responsibilities. She had worked hard to gain the knowledge needed to be a healer, and she was the best-equipped person in the castle and village for the task. Who else could aid the woman in labor? Who else would care for the sick and injured?
Evangeline quickly reached the stairs, her sisters trailing behind her. She had memorized the best exits and hidden passages through her previous escapades, knowing how to avoid guards. But as long as she remained inside the castle, she was vulnerable, susceptible to being found and returned to her father.
Just as they rounded a corner, distant footsteps reached their ears, causing Evangeline to freeze. She pressed herself against a wall and signaled her sisters to halt and be quiet. She strained to locate the source of the sound, realizing it was approaching them.
In a rush, Evangeline darted into a nearby alcove, attempting to blend into the wall. She widened her eyes, even though visibility was limited, leaving her sisters to divert the guards’ attention.
Before long, two young guards appeared—new to their positions and patrolling the corridors at night for potential threats. Despite the agreement between her clan, the Robertsons, and the MacThomas clan, her father’s paranoia persisted, fearing an attack or a broken peace agreement.
It made sneaking out difficult, but Evangeline was nothing if not persistent.
“What are ye doin’ out here so late at night?” one of the guards asked her sisters. “Shouldnae ye be in bed?”
“We heard . . . a sound!” Keira said, tripping over her own words, but only a little.
“A sound?” the guard asked.
“Aye, a sound,” Billie said. “Terribly loud. Did ye nae hear it?”
“I didnae hear anythin’,” the man said.
“Neither did I,” said the other.
“Well, what good are ye as guards if ye didnae even hear that sound?” Keira said. “I think I ought tae tell me faither that yer nae very good at this.”
Evangeline had to stifle a laugh at Keira’s stern tone. The poor guards would surely pay much closer attention to any sounds in the castle from now on, she thought.
“We’ll go and take a look right now, my lady!” one of the men said. “Where did ye say the sound came from?”
“That way,” Keira said, pointing at the opposite way of where Evangeline needed to go. “I would suggest ye dae so promptly. I dinnae suppose either o’ ye wants me faither tae hear about this.”
“We’ll make sure nae one is there,” the guard assured them, vanishing in seconds as they hurried to the other side of the building.
Evangeline emerged from her hiding spot, a smile playing on her lips as she addressed her sisters. “Well, ye certainly knew what to say to them,” she commented. “Dae ye dae this more often than ye let on?”
“What does it matter tae ye?” Keira retorted. “We saved ye. Ye should be thankin’ us.”
Evangeline playfully ruffled Keira’s hair, a gesture that never failed to annoy her. Keira swatted her hand away in response.
“Thank ye,” Evangeline said. “I mean it. I dinnae ken what I would dae without me wee sisters.”
“Just go ans make sure yer safe,” Billie said. “Come tae us when ye get back, nae matter what time it is.”
“I will,” Evangeline promised and set off once again. She managed to leave the castle without further issues and crossed the courtyard to the rear, where she knew an opening in the wall awaited, just spacious enough for her to squeeze through. No guards patrolled that part, allowing her to slip by unnoticed. That was, until a hand seized her and jerked her back as she was about to slip through the gap. She suppressed a scream, pressing a hand over her mouth, her heart pounding.
For all she knew, this could be an intruder, having breached the guards’ defenses and infiltrated the castle grounds. However, when she spun around, relief flooded her at the sight of her uncle, Mitchell. Even in the dim moonlight, his blonde hair and familiar face were recognizable, calming her racing heart.
Am I in trouble? Or will he let me go?
With Mitchell, it was hard to predict. Sometimes strict, sometimes lenient, he held a unique place in her life, a bond she didn’t share with anyone else, not even her father.
“Just where dae ye think yer goin’?” Mitchell asked. Evangeline was relieved he didn’t sound angry, but that didn’t mean she was off the hook just yet. “Dae ye ken what time it is?”
“Nae,” Evangeline said. “But I ken it’s late.”
With a sigh, Mitchell let go of her and gave her an amused look, his grey-blue eyes shining in the moonlight. “That’s right,” he said. “It’s very late. Shouldnae ye be sleepin’? What are ye doin’ out here?”
“What are ye doin’ out here?” Evangeline asked.
“I’m makin’ sure that nae one else is out here,” Mitchell said. “I was expectin’ tae see a foe, nae me own niece.”
Evangeline had little choice but to confess, though she hesitated, pondering whether a lie might serve her better—whether any excuse would surpass aiding someone in need.
“There’s a lass givin’ birth in the village,” she said. “She wrote tae me earlier today and asked me for help. I cannae leave her, Uncle. I must go and see if I can help.”
“At this hour?” Mitchell frowned.
“The letter arrived late,” Evangeline said. “I kent Faither wouldnae let me go, so I waited until I could leave without havin’ tae ask.”
Mitchell sighed again; this time wearier. He pinched the bridge of his nose, irritation evident. “If yer father discovered this, both our heads would roll.”
“That’s why ye willnae tell him,” Evangeline said in the sweetest tone she could manage. “Please, Uncle . . . she’s had a difficult time bearing the child. I dinnae wish for anythin’ tae happen tae her when I could have prevented it.”
Mitchell hesitated. He could drag Evangeline back inside if he wanted to, and she could do little other than verbally protest, and for a moment, she thought that was exactly what he was going to do. But then, he only nodded stiffly, taking a few steps back.
“I was never here,” he said. “And neither were ye. But make sure yer careful and ye come back afore dawn. Dae ye hear me?”
It took Evangeline a few moments to realise that Mitchell was letting her go, and her face split into a large grin as she threw herself at him, embracing him tightly. “Thank ye,” she said. “Och, thank ye, Uncle! I promise, I willnae dae anythin’ dangerous.”
Mitchell hugged her briefly in return before urging her on. As she slipped through the wall’s opening, she continued to smile, breaking into a run the instant she was clear of the castle.
Time was pressing, as she needed to reach the woman before the birth. Running through the darkened path was a small challenge, guided only by the moon and stars, but she knew it well enough to navigate even in the darkness.
The lights from the cottage soon came into view. It was the village’s first house, nearest to the castle, so descending the hill wasn’t too demanding. The return uphill would be more strenuous, but for the sake of aiding the woman, she considered it a minor inconvenience.
As she drew closer, she heard a crunching noise behind her, prompting her to stop. She scanned the area, seeking the source, but the dense line of trees near the path obscured her view.
Taking a deep breath, blood pounding in her ears, she tried to convince herself it was her imagination playing tricks. Perhaps her senses were deceiving her due to the late hour, stoking her unease about being alone in the wilderness.
It might be just a rabbit, nae reason for concern.
However, rabbits weren’t typically active at this hour, and whatever she heard sounded larger.
After a few seconds of silence, Evangeline turned to resume her journey to the cottage. Before she could move, though, another sound reached her ears. She spun around to find not a rabbit, nor a larger animal, but a hooded figure, tall and formidable, looming over her.
Fear surged, her instinct to scream stifled as the figure gripped her, a hand clamped firmly over her mouth.
Evangeline kicked and thrashed against the hold of the assumed man. Despite her efforts, she was overpowered, the grip suffocating.
Suddenly, something struck her head with a dull thud. Pain radiated through her, and as the edges of her vision darkened, she began losing consciousness. Her eyes closed, and her last glimpse was of a golden ring on the figure’s finger.
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