Highlander Oath of the Beast – Donna Fletcher

How long does he stand out there each day waiting?” Arran asked. Royden didn’t have to follow his brother’s glance to know who he asked about, but he did anyway. Their father stood on the top of the keep’s steps staring out beyond the village. Parlan was a sturdy built man for his four ten and six years. No gray touched his dark hair and the few lines and wrinkles age had graced him with hadn’t hampered his fine features. Yet he had chosen to pass the reins of the Clan MacKinnon to Royden, his eldest son. He had been reluctant to accept his da’s decree but had done so with pride and was now Chieftain of the Clan MacKinnon. “A month now, I believe,” —Royden turned back to Arran— “ever since Brother Noble, informed your wife that he discovered our sister, Raven, was on her way home.” “The leper could be wrong. It could be nothing more than useless gossip,” Arran said. “Brother Noble’s contagious illness doesn’t exactly win him friends nor does it make him a welcome guest anywhere but his home at Stitchill Monastery.” “True enough, but one would think that living in such isolation, even when traveling, he hears and learns much. And you must admit all our efforts to find Raven have proven fruitless. Brother Noble’s news brought back the hope Da had lost of ever finding her.” He gave a quick nod at his da.

“He doesn’t speak of it, but I know it weighs heavily on him that she, a young lass of ten and four years, saved his life. He should have been the one to keep her safe.” “It was a task meant for the three of us,” Arran argued. “We all failed to keep the oath we swore and Raven suffered for it. And let’s not forget the suffering the brutal attack left on others.” Arran looked at the stump where his brother’s left hand had once been. “You lost your hand.” Royden rubbed the leather-covered stump, needing no reminder. “We all lost, Arran, in one way or another. Fortunately, we’ve been reunited and you and I are happy, wed to women we love.

We have even more to be grateful for with my wife due to give birth in the spring and your wife, following a few months later. Even Da has found love with Wren after being alone for too long. Life is good for all of us—except Raven.” Arran looked away for a moment and Royden understood his brother fought to contain his anger. He did as well. It gnawed at him just as it did Arran and their da, that none of them had been able to protect Raven the day the clan had been attacked and now there was no way of knowing what she had gone through, what she might have suffered. And what she would be like when she returned home. Arran drew in a deep breath as he turned his head to face his brother. “I fear for what the last five years on her own, hiding from our enemy, may have brought her.” “I fear the same, but she will be well-loved and cared for here between the attention Oria and Wren will give her.

And your wife will visit with her often.” Arran nodded. “Purity and Raven had become fast friends all those years ago and had formed a strong bond. She will do all she can to make sure Raven does well.” A strong gust of wind hit the two men and they turned their backs to it. “Winter’s arrival is two weeks away, yet the biting cold in the air and overcast sky warns of possible snow. I fear the winter will be a cold one,” Royden said. “I grew to hate the cold while with the mercenaries in the far north and beyond the North Sea,” Arran said, then smiled. “But I look forward to this winter, for I intend to hibernate in the keep with my wife and enjoy her warmth.” “We should start that today with it being so bitter cold out.

” The two men turned and Arran’s smile grew when his wife, Purity, hurried to his side as he spread his cloak wide to welcome her in his arms. Her arms circled his waist and he tucked her snug against him and wrapped his cloak around them both. Royden greeted his wife, Oria, in a similar manner. His one arm went around her waist while the other brought his hand to rest gently on her rounded stomach. She rested eagerly against him, but her worried expression had him asking, “What’s wrong? Aren’t you feeling well? Shall I get Wren?” “I do well. It is your da who has me worried,” Oria said, looking to the keep steps where his da stood, his eyes scanning the distance while paying them no heed. “He waits day after day, and Wren says he hasn’t been sleeping.” “Brother Noble was adamant about the news of Raven’s return,” Purity said. “He insisted that he had learned it from a trustworthy source.” The two couples watched as Wren walked toward their da.

She turned her face away from a sudden gust of wind, it tearing red strands from her braid to whip at her lovely face. “She’s a healer. She’ll know what to do for him,” Arran said with more hope than confidence. “If only she could see when Raven will return,” Oria said. “It would ease Da’s worry, since many of her predictions have proven true thus far.” They watched as Parlan reached out to Wren when she got close and took hold of her hand with an anxiousness that warned of his worry. Her soft smile and words, that couldn’t be heard, appeared to offer some comfort, and they weren’t surprised when she remained by his side and stared off into the distance along with him. “All we need is Raven home and our family will be complete,” Oria said. Another gust of wind brought a sprinkle of snow with it. “We should go,” Arran said to his wife.

“Though home is not far, I don’t want to chance getting caught in an unexpected snowstorm.” He gave a quick look to his brother. “You’ll let me know—” “Immediately,” Royden said, knowing his brother referred to Raven. The bell alerting the village to approaching riders tolled, startling them all. “Riders!” Parlan called out and both couples hurried to join their da to get a glimpse in the distance of who approached the village. “Six riders and they take their time,” Arran said. “A long journey can slow one down,” Parlan said. Arran and Royden shared a glance, both knowing their da searched for any excuse that one of the riders could be Raven. “Angus rushes to us. He must have some news,” Parlan said, spotting and pointing to the seasoned MacKinnon warrior racing toward them and, keeping hold of Wren’s hand, he hurried her down the steps.

Royden and Arran followed suit, first sending stern glances to their wives to remain where they were. Purity shook her head and held her arm out to Oria. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting.” Oria smiled in agreement and took Purity’s arm to make their way down the stairs. The few snow flurries had increased and though yet to leave a trace on the ground, the stone steps were growing damp and Purity wanted to make sure Oria kept a firm footing. Parlan hadn’t reached the last step when he called out, “Tell me, Angus, is it my daughter? Has she finally come home?” “It looks like a ragtag crew in need of shelter and food from what we can see so far,” Angus said almost apologetically, the whole clan knowing what Parlan waited to hear and praying Raven would return soon. Parlan bent his head, discouraged by the news. “Have them escorted here,” Royden ordered. “Perhaps they have some news of Raven.” That perked his da up.

“Aye. Aye. They may know something. Bring them here, and we’ll give them food and shelter.” “They could be thieves,” Angus warned. “See that a watch is kept on them wherever they go once settled, since this snow might grow heavy and keep them here for the night at least,” Royden said. “Aye, sir.” Angus bobbed his head respectfully and went off to do as ordered. “Thieves hear things, know things. They could very well know of Raven,” Parlan said to Wren as if expecting her to confirm something.

Wren laid a gentle hand on his arm. Her eyes suddenly went blank and she stared as if not seeing him at all. After a couple of moments, she shook her head but failed to speak. “You saw something. Tell me,” Parlan demanded. Royden and Arran stepped closer to Wren. “Tell us,” Royden said. “We need to know before the group reaches us.” Wren nodded but directed her words to Parlan. “I only know that you will get answers but some will distress you.

” Parlan’s hand went to his chest. “She’s dead? Raven is dead?” Arran grabbed his da’s arm, to keep him on his feet, seeing his legs tremble. “Wren didn’t say that, Da.” “Tell me, Wren,” Parlan demanded. “I didn’t see that, Parlan. I only know what I strongly sensed but I can’t say what it actually relates to,” Wren explained. “And if you recall, I saw you all reunited so please hold on to that vision I had years ago and don’t assume the worst.” Parlan nodded vigorously. “That’s right, you did see my family together once again.” Arran released his da’s arm and went to his wife.

He hadn’t expected her to stay put and he was glad she hadn’t. His arm went around her once again to pull her close. His heart ached for his da. He understood now more than ever how he must feel not knowing what happened to Raven, what she’d been through, how she’d survived. His hand went to his wife’s stomach that was yet to round with their child. The thought that he would fail to protect his bairn or his wife was a thought he couldn’t bear to even conceive. He didn’t know how his da had lived with it these past five years. “Raven is strong,” Purity whispered, knowing her husband’s thoughts by the worrisome frown on his handsome face. Unfortunately, it didn’t ease his worry. Royden reached for his wife to draw her close.

“You will stay near.” Oria felt his worry, his muscles tightening as she rested against him. The failure to protect his sister had resulted in his constant worry of keeping her safe and more so since she had gotten with child. She understood and she prayed that Raven’s eventual return home would ease much of that worry. Six riders approached the keep, Angus walking in the lead with several clansmen following alongside the small group and behind them. All the riders wore cloaks. Three wore their hoods pulled down over part of their faces while the other three didn’t seem to mind the snow and cold that stung their cheeks red. Arran took note of the one fellow who was rail-thin and had droopy eyes, as if he was unconcerned with his surroundings. He moved to stand beside his brother, keeping his wife to his other side and whispered, “The thin one watches without watching.” Royden kept his voice low and his eyes on the approaching group.

“The dark-eyed one with the fine features has two knives at his waist and two in each boot.” “And the red-haired, bearded man’s dark eyes are more cunning than curious,” Arran said. Royden’s hand went to the dagger tucked in the sheath at his waist at the same time Arran’s hand went to the hilt of his sword that hung at his side. There might be only six, but six skilled men could cause pain and suffering before they could be subdued. Royden saw that his da was oblivious to any possible danger. His only concern was to learn from the group of misfits what he could about his daughter. And Royden wanted to make sure his da could do that without incident. Royden signaled Angus to bring the group to a stop a safe distance from them and he did, forcing the riders to come to a halt behind him. Two of the three whose hoods covered a good portion of their faces pushed their hoods back. “Clive!” Oria called out, happy to see the man who had posed as a merchant to bring word of Raven to her through the years.

Purity followed, smiling, pleased to see the soft-spoken man who had delivered messages to her in the woods where she had spent the last five years. “George!” “You joined a group of thieves, George?” Arran challenged. “Leave it to the likes of you to belittle my men,” came the female voice. Arran’s brow narrowed, trying to place the voice that sounded familiar. “Good God, have you grown that lazy in thought that you don’t know my voice?” the female challenged. Royden broke out in a huge grin. “OH MY, GOD, you haven’t changed a bit, Raven!” Arran called out, a big smile breaking out across his face. “Raven?” Parlan asked as if not sure he’d heard right as tears sprang to his eyes, and he hurried forward. The woman dismounted with speed and agility and she pushed her hood back as she rushed to her da. Parlan stopped in his tracks, his hand going to cover his mouth as tears ran down his cheeks.

His hand fell away to spread his arms wide. “My God, Raven, you’re even more beautiful than your mother.” Royden stared at their sister. Raven had barely been entering womanhood when the attack on the clan occurred. She’d been full of mischief and curiosity, and a good amount of stubbornness. And her features then gave evidence to the beauty she might become, but she had surpassed what Royden expected. Raven’s beauty was breathtaking. Her long, black hair shined like the wings of a raven, which had earned her her name. One look at the thatch of shiny black hair when Raven was born had her mum naming her after the beautiful bird. Her stunning blue eyes captivated, adding to her overall beauty.

She’d also grown, standing taller than most women and from what he could see, she was slender. She showed no signs of physical suffering. Quite the opposite, she appeared fit. And his heart swelled with relief when he watched his sister fall into their da’s arms. Overwhelming joy filled Raven, feeling her da’s arms wrap tight around her. She had hoped, dreamed, and planned for this day, the bittersweet thought of it always tearing at her heart. This time it was real. Her da’s arms were actually around her. It wasn’t a dream. He was hugging her tight as he had done countless times when she was a young lass.

“You’re home. You’re finally home,” Parlan said, keeping his daughter snug in his arms, fearful of letting her go, fearful of losing her again. Raven lingered in her da’s embrace, it having been far too long since she’d felt his warmth and love. She had hungered for it over the past five years and she wanted to linger in it as long as she could since time was short. “Give her over, Da,” Royden said and her da reluctantly let her go to share her with the family. Raven found herself wrapped in her oldest brother’s large, muscled arms and she fought back tears, refusing to cry. She also fought against the memory of that day of the attack. The day that was meant to be joyous. The day meant to unite Royden and Oria in marriage, but never got the chance. The day she had watched her brother lose his hand.

“You are good, Raven?” Royden asked, easing her at arm’s length to look her over and see for himself. “Aye, Royden. I’m good,” she confirmed, but saw doubt in his eyes and she knew that he wondered how much truth there was to her words. She was suddenly grabbed out of Royden’s grasp and wrapped in her brother Arran’s arms. He was lean and more muscular than she recalled, but still the handsome devil he’d always been. “This motley crew of yours better not have done you harm in any way or they will not live to see another day,” he whispered in her ear. Raven struggled to free herself enough from her brother’s tight grasp to look him in the eye. “I will not see them harmed. They were, and continue to be, the family I missed and longed for these last five years.” It was answer enough for now, though Arran didn’t like that she had avoided confirming that no one had harmed her.

In time, he’d learn the truth and make anyone who caused her pain suffer. “My turn,” Oria said and hurried her arms around Raven. “I am so happy you are finally home. I have missed you.” Raven forced a smile. She’d let them be happy for this short time. They would learn soon enough. “I have missed you as well,” Raven said and patted Oria’s protruding stomach. “You and my brother have been busy.” Oria blushed.

“The first of many.” “It’s good to know the MacKinnon Clan will grow and flourish,” Raven said and looked to Wren. “And that you will have a wise healer here to see that you deliver safely.” Wren stepped forward with a smile that faded when Raven hugged her. “I can see you know. Say nothing,” Raven warned with a whisper. Wren nodded to confirm as she said, “It is so good to have you home.” Raven turned to Purity, standing off on her own and the two young women hurried to each other, their arms reaching out and grabbing hold to hug tight. “You remained a good friend, Purity,” Raven whispered. “Always,” Purity said, not able to stop her tears from falling.

“And somehow I got the man I loved. Your brother Arran and I are wed.” Raven stepped away from Purity and turned a wicked grin on Arran. “You know you don’t deserve her.” “Aye, but she took pity on my poor soul and wed me anyway,” Arran said with a chuckle. “Lucky you,” Raven said.


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