Torment of the Highland Heart(Preview)
Stirling, Highlands, 1632
“All will be well, now, aye. Ye’ll see in time, Aria.”
Aria clung to the thin linen of her smock with her right hand, the other coiling around the bottom of her father’s jacket. Walking alongside each other through the town, she held on to him, heading to the castle.
“Ye’ll see,” Kester said again, though he seemed to be speaking as much to himself as to her. Aria looked up, staring at the face of the man who had introduced himself as her father just that morning.
My mother always said I had nae father…
It had been a shock to see his face. He was taller than she’d imagined, with hollows in his cheeks and a forehead that showed his old age. At least the dark hair made sense. She’d often wondered why hers had such a dark color when her mother had been fair-haired. Kester’s locks waved around his temples, not yet gray. Aria’s hair was similar, refusing to lay flat and constantly waving around her shoulders, as if caught in a perpetual wind.
“They’re looking at me,” Aria said, suddenly aware of the way the townspeople stopped and stared. Stepping closer to her father, she prayed she was too small for them to notice. He did not reach down protectively as her mother would have done in the past; he walked on all the same, as if she hadn’t moved toward him. Painfully indifferent.
“Aye, they will,” Kester sighed. “It is nae every day that the clan has news of a ba— I mean…” He trailed off, urging Aria to jerk her head up to look at him. “The clan does nae ken that I have a bastard of my own, Aria. The people like gossip about their Laird.” He reached down at last as if going to stroke her head, then thought better of it and patted her shoulder instead. She felt like a dog at his heel, ready to be dismissed. “Ye’ll be stared at for a while yet, I fear.”
Aria sniffed and looked forward again.
Aye, another thing I’ll have to grow used to that has changed.
Much had changed those last few weeks. The sudden sickness of her beloved mother had been almost too much to bear, and it was worse now that she was gone. Aria had wailed all night after her death, her face pushed into her pallet as she pleaded for her mother to walk through the door. The local healer had sat by her bed, mumbling about how a seven-year-old was too young to understand what death truly meant. Aria did understand some of it and that was that she’d never see her mother again.
“Where are we going?” Aria asked, pulling on her father’s cloak to get his attention. He flinched at the movement, but didn’t brush her off. “To the castle?”
“Aye. Ye’ll live there with me, now.”
“Mother said we were never welcome at the castle. That we shouldnae go.”
“There was a reason for that.” Kester didn’t elaborate. He turned his dark eyes forward and walked with a more purposeful pace. Aria trailed behind him, her eyes dancing around the streets.
The townspeople turned and stared, looking up from what they were doing; with traders pausing in conversation; fishwives ignoring one another to gawk; marketgoers gossiping amongst themselves. Aria stumbled on the cobbled street as she looked back at the men who tailed them, all of them staring as well.
They were guards or soldiers of some kind. Her mother had pointed out what a soldier looked like once, with swords at their belts and long pikes in their hands, bearing the yellow and red tartan of the Buchanan clan. There were many of them now, following closely, their beady eyes boring holes into her back.
“Why am I going with ye?” Aria’s question made Kester glance down at her, revealing his thin lips that were pressed together. He glanced behind at the guards, looking lost as he scratched his face, then he bent down and picked her up. She struggled at first, not used to being held in such a way.
Mother was the only one to ever carry me.
“Be still now, lass,” he urged. She calmed herself but leaned away. “I ken ye are young, aye. Maybe ye will barely understand what I have to say to ye, but if ye remember any of it then it is worth saying,” he whispered quickly as he walked on, carrying her. “My position in this clan means people whisper. They stare, they talk, and they have high expectations of me. I am married and have a family of my own, children of my own, daughters.”
Aria looked down at her hands and fidgeted, understanding only a little of what he was trying to say.
“I will have sisters?”
“Half-sisters,” he corrected, his tone firm. “Yer mother and I… Well, what we shared was long ago, and ye were the result of something that has never been talked of, never until yer mother laid in her sickbed. She wrote a letter to me, requesting that I care for ye. And I intend to do just that. Ye are my daughter, Aria, and I wouldnae see ye alone in this world.” His last words were spoken with spirit, imbuing her with hope.
Alone… Maybe I willnae spend my days staring out of the window at the church, where my mother lies now.
“Yet, it willnae be easy,” he whispered the words as an afterthought, and his eyes glanced down at the clothes Aria was wearing.
She looked down too, suddenly aware of the dirtiness of her smock, and the loose tendrils of her hair. Her shoes were scuffed and torn, unlike those of the man who carried her, for he wore fine boots that appeared to have been polished that very morning.
“Some things will have to change.”
“Stop fidgeting, ye foolish girl.” Isobel’s snapping tone made Aria freeze, and she imagined that her entire body was turning to ice. “This is an important moment for our family, and I willnae have ye ruining it.”
Kester was striding out of the castle’s large doors, toward their visitors, and Isobel pushed Aria far behind the family.
Aria tottered on her feet, almost falling over. She barely managed to stay standing as she scurried behind her half-sisters. Caitlin and Una glanced her way, their dark eyes wide, before they looked to the vast doorway of the castle again.
“Aye, naething will compromise this moment,” Isobel declared fervently.
Aria fidgeted in her ill-fitting gown. Ever since she had arrived at the castle two weeks ago, her life had been bleak. Contrary to what Kester had promised, she was alone most days. His wife, Isobel, looked at her as if she were a stray, diseased dog that had wandered into the house. Caitlin and Una had been instructed not to play with her, and they respected their mother’s wishes without hesitation.
“Welcome, welcome!” Kester’s booming voice took hold of Aria’s attention.
Jerking her chin upward, she surveyed the large, stone entrance hall. It had been peppered with candles that had been lit especially for the arrival of their guests. On the walls were the portraits of previous Lairds, dead long before Kester’s time, and one that bore his own countenance.
“My love,” Kester moved toward his wife with the visitors in tow. “May I introduce to ye Laird and Lady Maclaren. They are dear friends of mine, indeed.”
Introductions were made, though Aria didn’t pay attention. Past the imposing gentleman who had entered and his petite, docile-looking wife, there was a young boy. He was a few years older than Aria, with fair hair so bright it was as if he was stood in a beam of sunlight. She blinked, staring at him, unable to tear her eyes away. He stepped between his parents into the room, surveying everything before him with an easy smile on his lips.
Aria was too young to know what beauty was, but she knew she liked the look of the boy. There was something in his countenance that was pleasing to her eye.
“Well, please, do come in.” Isobel’s tone was the kindest Aria had ever heard it. “The servants have prepared some refreshments for us, and the children can play in the library whilst we discuss matters.”
Everything was quickly arranged. Caitlin, Una, and the boy were all dropped off in the library, and Aria shuffled in afterward. She overhead as Laird Maclaren asked why they were sending a servant child in with the children, and she heard the hushed tones of Isobel replying that it was her husband’s bastard—the one they had forewarned him of in their letters. Aria had often heard that word in the last week. Isobel seemed to throw it around with eagerness, especially when she thought Kester couldn’t hear her.
When the door closed behind the children, Aria turned to see Caitlin and Una sitting on a rug at the far end of the room. They sat down to play, using wooden horses Aria was not allowed to play with.
The boy watched the girls play, his blond head angled as he observed them, his green eyes wide.
Aria had spent many hours since her arrival hiding around corners, trying to get away from people as much as possible, but something about the boy gave her confidence. She crept toward him and tugged on the sleeve of his jerkin, trying to get his attention. At once, his chin jerked in her direction.
“Are ye a serving girl?” he asked, his voice cool.
“Nay. I’m Aria.” She tried to curtsy, like Isobel had told her to do, but she fumbled and nearly fell over. The boy nodded, clearly having heard her name before. He stepped back, putting distance between them. “What is yer name?” she asked.
“Evander. I will be the Laird of Clan Maclaren someday.” He smiled broadly, his confidence plain. Aria stared at him in wonder. He seemed uncertain under that gaze and gestured to the bookshelves behind her. “Do ye have any books ye like here?”
“A book? It’s a story ye can read.”
“Och, I…” Aria fumbled for a moment, shifting her weight between her feet. “I dinnae ken. I cannae read.”
“Ye cannae read?” He laughed at once, then looked between her and the other girls. “Hard to believe ye’re their sister at all. Nay, if I am to marry one of ye someday, I ken it willnae be ye. Who would marry a poorly-dressed bastard? And one who cannae read?”
Aria reeled back. She began to feel small, as if the boy had kicked her in the gut, and it ached.
“I wonder what yer silly mother thought, putting ye in rags like that.” He gestured to her clothes.
“What did ye say about my mother?” The anger in her tone alerted Caitlin and Una who abandoned their wooden horses and stared openly at the two of them. “Nae one should speak so about someone’s ma or da.” She struggled to say the right words, feeling tears prick her eyes at the mention of her mother. Never had she missed someone so much in her life, and the boy’s insult fueled an anger she had never felt before.
“Yer mother is probably like ye, isnae she?” he said with a laugh and sat down in the nearest chair, gesturing to her. “Was she a beggar on the street?”
“My mother is dead!” Aria cried angrily, moving to stand in front of the boy with her red face, with her hands balled into fists. The boy stared at her, his lips parted in shock, but nothing could stop her now. Aria couldn’t hold back her anger and flung herself at the boy, her fists outstretched.
“Ach! She’s hitting me! Father!” he called as loudly as he could, trying to push her away. She was small compared to him, but she knew nothing but violence in that moment, and she wanted nothing more than to hurt the beautiful boy as he had hurt her.
Caitlin and Una began to scream, and within seconds the door to the room was flung open. Aria felt hands dragging her backward, but she fought against them, trying to deliver yet another blow to the boy’s fair face.
“He insulted my ma! He said mean things about her. She’s dead! He cannae do that!” she cried on, wanting everyone to know her outrage was justified, but still she was dragged away.
Through the mist of her anger, she caught sight of the person holding her back. It had been Isobel at first, but then Kester had grabbed her and slung her over his shoulder, separating her and Evander. Lady Maclaren bemoaned any injury to her son, and Laird Maclaren talked of how uncivilized it was to have a bastard child in the house.
As Aria was carried away, she continued to kick and scream, pulling at the back of her father’s shirt, demanding to be put down.
“Let me go! He deserved it!”
“And that justifies naething, Aria.” Kester’s voice was harsher than she had ever heard it. At once, her body fell still.
They burst through doors, one set after another slamming against the stonework, until Aria was thrust onto the ground, so forcefully that she fell over, unable to keep standing. She landed on her rear, with the worn skirt of her gown billowing around her. Kester stood over her, his hands on his hips like a giant.
“How dare ye treat a guest like that! Is this how yer mother raised ye? To be feral, like a wild dog?”
“He was mean! He said things—”
“Nae another word, Aria. Nae another word!” His voice was seething, so low and deep that it rumbled, and he blanched. “If ye continue to act like this, I’ll put ye back on the street where I found ye. Is that understood?”
Aria’s breath caught in her throat. She held onto it, trying to stop the tears from coming, but it was too late. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Kester turned away from her, unable to look at her as she gave into her weeping.
“God only kens why I thought this was a sage idea.”
Kester stormed from the room and slammed the door behind him, leaving her in the chamber that had been given to her, alone.
With the door closed, she gave way to her tears freely, until they wracked her entire body. Evander’s words kept coming back to her, that she was a bastard and could not read. She leaned forward as the tears consumed her, praying that someday she would not be vulnerable to such insults. Maybe she could be educated, wear dresses that didn’t make her look like such an outcast.
One thing she knew for certain.
I will hate Evander for this, forevermore. Aye, to my last breath I will hate him.
Twelve years later
“Ha! Can ye nae force a smile? Many a man would smile kenning they are riding off to find a wife. Nah, nae ye, I see. Ye will only glower at me for saying such things.” Laith smiled, daring Evander to riposte as he stood with his hands on his hips.
Evander was glad of the excuse for some levity at last. It was one of the reasons he was so fond of Laith and considered the soldier his closest friend. The man had a habit of making him smile, even when smiling was the last thing on his mind.
“Stand in my boots for one day, Laith, then ye will understand why I daenae want to do this.” Evander pulled himself into his saddle and glanced back at the keep. He thought he saw his father, Quinn, standing in one of the windows before walking off again, but it could only have been in his imagination.
Well, he’s nae my real father, is he?
He thought of the secret that he’d kept guarded closely since he was a child. His mother had been the one to reveal it. He’d thought when he was young that she had spoken the secret out of weakness. Now, he wasn’t so sure. The only two people in the world who knew that Quinn was not Evander’s father were his mother and himself.
Only me, now.
Evander’s eyes danced across the drawbridge, leading to the castle’s front. Its emptiness was too strong a reminder of what he had lost.
“Evander?” Laith moved to his side, now having mounted his horse as well. “Ye are staring in one spot for nae good reason, I ken it. Shall I jump down from my ride and dance in that spot, so at least then ye willnae look like a madman to those that pass us by?”
Once more, Evander was glad to have his friend by his side. He glanced around at the guards who were preparing to accompany them on the journey to Stirling castle, fearing what they thought.
“Best nae. They might think ye the madman then,” Evander warned his friend and turned away, moving his horse closer to Laith’s. “She used to see me off whenever I went traveling. It is strange for me nae to see my mother standing there now.”
Laith said nothing, for there was no good thing that could be said. He leaned over and clapped Evander on the shoulder.
They didn’t talk about his mother as a rule, just to make it easier. No one could decide why Marie had been walking through the abandoned wing of the castle. Her trip down the stairs had been unfortunate and grim, for she had fallen two stories and had died from her injuries.
Ach, Mother… It pains me to think of what ye endured.
“Shall we be on our way?” Laith asked.
“Aye, we should—nae that I’m looking forward to it.”
Evander gave the order to his guards to begin their ride and flicked his reins. Within seconds, he was galloping away from the drawbridge and down the hill, heading toward the town and the road he’d have to take to reach Stirling. At all times Laith stayed close, and the guards rode a short distance behind them.
When they were out on the open road, they slowed their pace a little, and Evander could feel Laith’s gaze upon him.
“What is it?” he asked restlessly. “Cannae ye see I’m deep in thought?”
“Aye, ye’re staring at the pine trees moving in this breeze as if they’ll offer ye up some answers.” Laith had fair hair, not dissimilar to Evander’s in color, and as he tilted his head to the side, it fell across his forehead, nearly masking his dark eyes. “What question is it ye seek an answer to?”
“Why am I doing this?” Evander asked with a shrug. “I ken the answer really. My father wants an alliance with the Buchanan clan, so I must choose a wife from the Laird’s two daughters.”
“I thought there were three?”
“There are.” Evander kept his focus ahead of him, urging the dark steed beneath him forward. “Yet we daenae talk about Aria.”
“Ach, Aria. Is she the—”
“Bastard, aye.” Evander brushed over the word quickly, careful to keep his face firmly turned away from Laith. There were many reasons why he was not looking forward to seeing her again. Many years had passed, and she would be a young woman now, no longer a little girl. But despite the passage of time, Evander remembered what he had done. He remembered the day he’d insulted Aria’s mother, not knowing that she was dead, and he had been attacked by the girl for his cruel words. Yet, it was not the main reason why he did not want to see her again.
She’s a bastard just like me. Och, I fear seeing myself in her.
There was a part of him that feared the truth coming to the surface when he was faced with another just like him.
“I shall pick the eldest daughter, Caitlin,” Evander said neutrally. “She is the eldest, and she will nae doubt be the wisest too.”
“How romantic!” Laith declared sarcastically. “Choosing a wife before ye have even seen her. Ye may nae like the look of her, and she might nae like ye either.”
“It is nae about romance. It’s about the relations between our clans,” Evander reminded his friend. “It’s what my father wants.”
“It’s a good job I am nae put off by yer cold manner, sir,” Laith said jovially. “Many a man would have run by now.” When Evander shot him a playful, warning glare, Laith pretended to shudder. “I swear a breeze cold as ice just passed through the air.”
“I am glad ye are coming with me, Laith. Ye will make this farce more tolerable.”
Having ridden for many long hours, nearing the Buchanan clan’s lands, the guards began to grow weary. Evander could have ridden on, as could have Laith, but one glance back at the younger soldiers made him worried. He’d heard his father speak a hundred times about the importance of the guards knowing who their leader was. Quinn saw to that by making loud demands and shouting in guards’ faces, even though it was not a path he wished to tread on.
“The youngest are tired,” Evander whispered to Laith as they came upon a tavern. “Let us rest here a while. I daenae want my men falling off their horses with exhaustion.”
They tacked up the horses with the hostler and made their way inside. When the guards tried to pay for their own drinks, Evander urged them to put their money away and paid for them himself, saying he owed them a favor for riding all this way with him. He caught Laith’s eye as he paid for their mugs of ale.
“Careful, sir,” Laith said with a note of mischief. “Ye’ll soon shrug off yer reputation for being so distant.”
“Ye are teasing me again.” Evander passed some of the drinks to Laith for him to carry, leaving only one behind. As Evander picked up the tankard, turning away from the candlelit bar, he caught sight of someone in the corner of the room.
The sight of this elderly woman was curious to say the least, for she was cramped into a small space, pressed between two timber pillars, and curled over a table, her back hunched with age. Her grey hair was loose, falling out of its white bonnet, and her hands gripped the table in front of her so tightly that her knuckles were white. It was as if she was clinging onto it for dear life.
Something is wrong.
Evander grew certain of it. Glancing at his men across the room, talking amongst themselves, stretching their legs, and bemoaning the long journey. None were looking his way. With the floorboards creaking beneath his boots, Evander moved toward the elderly woman, noting how she continued to grip the table and mutter to herself. Her skin was so pale that Evander assumed she was afraid of something.
“Forgive the intrusion,” Evander said, moving closer to her table. The old woman’s eyes shot open at once, revealing milky-white orbs. “I couldnae help noticing how ye are sitting. Is there anything ye need? Perhaps another drink. Shall I fetch ye one?”
“A kind voice.” She smiled a little, her thick, cracked lips curling upward slowly. “Ye learn the weight of voices when ye’re like me.” She tapped the side of her temple, urging Evander to stare closer into her eyes and understand what that milkiness meant.
She is blind.
“Most say my voice is a cold one,” Evander observed, crouching down slightly to better look the lady in the face. She cocked her head to the side as an owl might, listening closely to him.
“Those that say so daenae ken how to truly listen. Ye ask if ye may do something for me, is that so?”
“Aye.” Evander wished to help.
“Then ye can sit with me for a moment.” She gestured to the other end of the table. Seeing that there was no stool there, Evander took one from an empty table nearby and sat down. The moment he did so, the woman veered forward, as if to stare at him through the veil of her blindness.
Evander raised his tankard to his lips when he spied her cup. Her mug had been carelessly filled, with a hair floating atop the amber liquid. Cursing under his breath, he swapped her tankard with his own and waved it at a nearby servant, urging him to go and find a replacement.
“Kindness should be its own reward in this world. It often isnae… but ye, aye, I have a feeling it will be for ye,” the woman said.
Her words made Evander pause, wondering if she knew what he had done even though she could not see. “Ye speak in riddles, madam,” he said softly, rather hoping that by keeping her company he could avoid talking about himself. He didn’t want her to discover that he was Laird Maclaren’s son. It could encourage all sorts of unwanted questions.
“Aye, I do, and often.” She nodded, chuckling. “I could give ye another riddle. This one is ripe with knowledge. One kind turn for another.” She tapped the tankard he had given to her, showing that she knew exactly what he had done. Lifting the tankard to her lips, she took a gulp, smacking her lips loudly when she was done, then placed it back on the table. “Yer hand.”
“What of my hand?”
“Give it to me.” She took his hand off the table before he had a chance to retreat from her. Stiffening in his seat, he paused, not wanting to make a scene by pulling back from her again. Those milky eyes closed, hiding their whiteness, and she tipped her head back. “Ye seek answers for many things. Mostly about yer father.”
Evander felt his lips part in wonder. He supposed it was an easy guess for a stranger to make. Every man at some point took issue with his father. Surely, there was no way she could have divined that he longed to discover who his real father was?
“Aye, ye have questions for him.” She nodded. “And the answer is coming to ye, but through another. Ye will meet a lass. I see her… petite, dark-haired, with eyes just like yer own. Green.”
Evander snatched his hand out of the woman’s grasp.
“How can ye see what color my eyes are?” Evander asked, trying to keep all panic out of his voice.
“I cannae see with my eyes.” She tapped her temple, as if her mind gave her the answer. “Aye, this lass is who ye seek, and ye should keep her close. Without her, ye willnae find yer answers—nor happiness. Well, that may stay an elusive thing to ye.”
She fell silent, her cracked lips smiling widely.
“I feel as though I should offer some payment for the telling of my fortune,” Evander said slowly, standing.
“I ask for naething, for yer debt is paid in full. It’s one kindness for another.” She picked up her tankard again. “I wish ye well, my laird.” She whispered the last words and chuckled to herself, before downing what was left in her cup. Slowly, she stood to her feet and left the tavern, using a gnarled walking cane to find her way.
Evander shook himself, coming to his senses, and crossed the tavern in a hurry, headed to where Laith was sitting and staring at him.
“Are ye well, my laird?” Laith asked, the lines in his face creasing with worry. “Ye look as though ye have seen a ghost or met a witch.”
“Perhaps I did.”
When the boy returned with a fresh tankard for him, he downed it and told Laith the woman had tried to tell his future, though he left out the specifics.
“Ha! If ye wish to ken yer future, ye need only ask yer father. He’s the one puppeteering yer life, isnae he?” The snarky comment was softened by Laith’s good humor, but Evander couldn’t disagree with him. What Quinn ordered Evander did, for one reason only: he always longed for the laird’s approval, even if it seemed forever out of his reach.
“This has truly spooked ye, hasnae it?” Laith asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table between them. “She is some passing crone trying to make a few coins, that is all.”
“I didnae give her any coins.” Evander shook his head.
“Then she’s waiting for the next time ye meet and will ask ye for money then Aye, they can draw ye in, these old witches. What is it they say in the old play of Shakespeare’s? By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. She’ll make ye pay her a few coins yet.”
“Laith, ye daenae understand.” Evander pushed his tankard against Laith’s arm, getting his attention and lowering his voice further, not wanting to be overheard by the guards. “She kenned the color of my eyes even when she was blind.”
“Aye, of course, she did.” Laith laughed a little. “Maybe she was nae truly blind.”
“But her eyes… How did she ken who I was?” Evander’s question made his friend quiet at last. “She kenned exactly who I was, Laith, and I am nae wearing a clan brooch, naething to declare I am of any greater station than the next man.”
“Ye travel with a complement of guards.”
“Any man could do that. She kenned things, Laith, and I am nae sure what to make of what she had to say.”
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