Highlander’s Fearless Angel – Isobel Irving

The little boy clasped his mother’s hand tightly. She’d been in bed for days now. She could hardly open her eyes to look at him, but her smile was still there, soft and comforting. “Do you not want to go outside and play in the snow?” His mother’s voice was barely a whisper. The little boy shook his head. After days of heavy snow and howling winds, the sun was finally shining. Normally, the little boy would have rushed outside to scoop up snowballs and build a fort, but he couldn’t do that. Not until his mother got out of bed again. He’d stay with her till then. His mother closed her eyes. Talking tired her. The bright sunlight, white with the reflection of the snow, fell in pale columns through the infirmary’s high, arched windows, lighting up his mother’s pallid but still beautiful face. Her hair was as red as fire, but her skin was almost as white as the linen sheets that she lay under. The little boy didn’t like it. His mother’s cheeks always used to be rosy, and her lips, now tinged with blue, used to be red.

“Please, Lucas.” His mother spoke without opening her eyes, her brow creased from the effort. “Go outside and play. You shouldna stay here with me.” But the little boy gripped his mother’s hand only tighter. He didn’t like to disobey his mother, but they were alone in the world together. The little boy had no one else. He wouldn’t leave her side until the color returned to her cheeks. He wanted to see her sit up with no one helping her. He wanted to see her get out of bed and walk.

His mother smiled and opened her eyes a little. “You’ve such a good heart,” she said. “You were destined for so much more than this. Dinna ever forget that. You were born to lead Clan Grant. Remember the stories I told you about your father, about what a good and brave man he was.” She squeezed his hand weakly. “You’ve had an unlucky start in life, but you’ll more than make up for it. I’m sure of that. You were born to save your people.

I just hope—” His mother’s coughing was as sudden as it was violent. Her body convulsed, her face contorted with pain as she choked on her own breath, a terrible noise rattling through her chest. The little boy squeezed his mother’s hand as tight as he could, with both his hands. He prayed for the coughing to pass as quickly as it had started, for he so hated seeing his mother suffer, but the coughing did not ease. His mother withdrew her hand from him and clutched the bed as she continued coughing, her body jerking in agony, tears rolling down her cheeks. A swish of robes and the scuff of footsteps on stone announced the arrival of a nun in the infirmary. She hurried towards his mother’s bedside, her gray eyebrows knotted with concern. “Sister Ruth,” she called over her shoulder as she moved. “Bring the poppy pastilles, a basin of hot water, and plenty of linens. Hurry!” Arriving at his mother’s bed, the nun paid no heed to the little boy, focusing instead on his mother.

“Try to sit up, if you can, dear.” The nun put her arm under his mother’s shoulders to try to help the boy’s mother off her back, but she could not lift her up, and his mother’s coughing intensified. “Sister Ruth!” cried the nun, rubbing a hand down his mother’s back in an effort to calm her. “I did say to hurry!” A younger nun burst into the infirmary with a wooden basin full of steaming water in her arms, moving as quickly as she could. Over her shoulder was a pile of folded linens. Arriving at his mother’s bedside, she placed the water on a nearby table and helped the other nun to support the boy’s mother under her arms so that she could sit up as her body spasmed from the coughing. But sitting up, her coughing deepened, and with her head dropped forward, a spray of blood flew out of her mouth, leaving a shock of red across the bedsheets. The younger nun gasped. “Dear Lord,” said the older nun as she made the sign of the cross over herself. “Please give us the strength to help this poor woman in her hour of need.

” The boy’s mother continued her coughing, deep and rasping, as the younger nun tried to coax a pastille into her mouth. “It’s too late for that,” said the older nun. “Take the boy outside. Go.” The younger nun nodded and grasped the boy’s hand. Her grip was gentle but cold. “Nae!” the little boy cried. He did not want to leave his mother. Not now. Not ever.

“Wait.” His mother’s voice was barely a croak between coughs. She took the little boy’s other hand and pressed something into it, closing his fingers around it. “You’re special,” she said, her lips red with blood. “Dinna ever forget—” The coughing returned with even more violence and stole his mother’s words as the bright red stains on the bedsheets grew. “Come,” said the young nun. “Sister Scholastica will look after your mother. She is in God’s hands now.” She put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gently guided him out of the infirmary. The sounds of his mother’s coughing and Sister Scholastica’s prayers followed them along the cloister.

As they stepped through the heavy oak doors into the sunlight and snow at the front of the convent, the little boy slipped his hand out of the nun’s grip. “Lucas!” the nun called as he ran as fast as he could, his feet disappearing beneath him into drifts of snow. He ran and ran, until the sound of his mother’s coughing was far behind him, until all he could hear was his own mouth gasping for air, his own breath pluming white in the cold. He hid behind a holly bush, its red berries glowing brightly against the snow. Only there, by himself, did he dare open his hand and look at what his mother had given him. Only there, behind the holly bush, did he allow himself to cry. TW E NT Y -F IVE Y E A RS LA T E R… P C H A P T E R O N E eigi MacLean had made a terrible mistake. She’d left St Oda’s Priory, her home since before she could remember, to be married, just as she’d always dreamed she would. At twenty-two years of age, Peigi had almost given up on the idea of becoming a wife and mother. Then, just one month ago, Captain Brian Spalding appeared in her life, and everything changed.

“Are ye deaf, lass? I said go fetch wood for the fire.” Captain Spalding had short, gray hair and sharp features. Aside from his shining chest armor, everything he wore was black: black doublet, black plaid, and black boots. He was tall, but his shoulders were narrow. When Peigi had first met him, he’d been chivalrous. He’d bowed deeply and kissed her hand. Now, two days’ ride into their journey to Peigi’s new home, he was ordering her around like a common serving maid. The captain narrowed his eyes. “I dinna want to have to ask ye again.” Peigi could have refused to obey his orders.

She could have reminded him she was his betrothed, not a servant, and should be treated with respect. But Peigi was alone in an unknown place with Captain Spalding and three of his soldiers, and the captain had revealed himself to be a cruel and violent man, beating his horse on several occasions and cuffing his soldiers around their ears when they didn’t react quickly enough for his liking. The soldiers were busy setting up the camp for the night, erecting tents and rolling out bedding, and were not even looking at Peigi or Captain Spalding. What choice did she have? There was no one to defend her. If she didn’t comply, she would likely face a beating. She was on her own. Heading into the dimness of the forest, tears pricked Peigi’s eyes. As an army captain, Peigi had foolishly assumed Captain Spalding would be an honorable man. Peigi’s own sister Una had been married to a military man once in what had been a peaceful union until his untimely death. Plus, Captain Spalding had created the impression that he adored Peigi.

He’d spotted her out collecting blackberries and had followed her to the convent where he’d requested her hand in marriage straight away. Peigi had said no initially, for it was fantastical that she would agree to marry a man without knowing him. He’d then visited her every week and worn down Peigi’s defenses, charming her with sweet words, until she finally said yes. For during that month of visits, it had dawned upon her: Captain Spalding may not be the man of her dreams, but at last she had the chance to become a wife and mother, and she’d been certain she’d grow fond of the man in time. Every girl dreamed of marrying for love, but at Peigi’s age, time was running out. The captain’s proposal would likely be her only chance at starting her own family. But as tears ran down her cheeks, she saw now what a fool she’d been. Captain Spalding wasn’t in love with her. She’d given her life away to a cruel and abusive man. The idea of bearing his children made her sick.

As Peigi collected sticks from the forest floor, she wiped her eyes on her sleeves, but the tears kept coming. She remembered how Mother Superior had gently tried to warn her about making hasty decisions. She recalled how her sisters, via letter, had urged Peigi to wait until they themselves had the chance to meet Captain Spalding before agreeing to his proposal. But Peigi had been so desperate to secure herself a husband — and so blind to Captain Spalding’s lies — that she’d ignored the advice of the people who cared for her most, and now she was paying the price. Dread filled Peigi’s stomach as she returned to Captain Spalding’s camp, sticks bundled in her arms. She’d been restless when she left, but now she missed her life at the convent dearly. She missed her work as a scribe and cataloging documents in the library. She missed the regime of prayers, work, and sleep. Peigi missed everything she thought she’d grown tired of. “Pah!” Captain Spalding looked derisively at Peigi as she set the wood she’d collected on the ground.

“Ye think that’s good enough for firewood? Yer more useless than I thought.” Fear and rage bubbled up in Peigi’s chest. She could no longer hold it all in. “Then why marry me? Why trick me from my home if I’m useless?” The captain strode towards her and grabbed her jaw in a leather-gloved hand. “First, I’m not yet sure whether or not I’ll marry ye. Second, yer not completely useless. Yer a bonny, young lass, and I know yer good for at least one thing.” The captain grabbed at Peigi’s waist and hips, pinching hard on her flesh through her layers of skirts, as if sizing up a pig for slaughter. A wave of revulsion passed through Peigi’s body with a shiver of fear. She looked round at the soldiers, none of whom were looking their way.

Captain Spalding pushed Peigi away from him, forcing her to stumble backwards. “I’ll have what I want from ye later. First, we eat.” The first stars appeared in the sky, and owls hooted in the forest. Peigi sat in silence by the fire, trying to eat the thin pottage with peas that the soldiers had prepared, but her stomach was cramped with nervousness. Captain Spalding had uncorked a flask of whisky and drank liberally from it, fixing Peigi with a hard, lustful glare that scared her. To steady her nerves, Peigi looked into the small, leather pouch at her waist. It contained all the belongings she’d taken with her from St Oda’s, as Captain Spalding had promised her new dresses and luxuries as soon as they were married. Everything Peigi owned was in that pouch: she’d brought with her some goose feathers from which to make quills, and enough gallnuts, vitriol, and gum arabic to make a small amount of ink. Even if she was in no position to use them there beside Captain Spalding’s camp fire, seeing her writing instruments brought Peigi great comfort, as they reminded her of the satisfaction she got from her work at St Oda’s library and scriptorium.

But they also made her sad, because she’d left that life behind for something she thought was better, only it had turned out not to be better at all. The camp fire crackled and spat as Captain Spalding and his soldiers drank from the whisky flask. The captain told his men bawdy jokes that Peigi tried her best not to hear. Another flask of whisky was taken from the horse’s saddle bags. Captain Spalding’s thirst for the liquid seemed unquenchable. When he stood up from his seat by the fire and made his way over to Peigi, he was unsteady on his feet, his dark eyes swimming as he looked down at her. “Go wait in my tent.” Fear gripped Peigi’s chest, but outwardly, she remained calm. With an obsequious nod, she rose and turned towards the tents, but Captain Spalding caught her arm and jerked her around to face him. Before Peigi knew what was happening, he’d pressed his lips against hers with such force that her lips were crushed painfully against her teeth.

The captain’s sour, whisky odor and the scrape of his rough skin made Peigi retch. As he pulled away from her, Captain Spalding wiped his mouth on the back of his glove. “Aye, lass,” he said, his eyebrows twitching in appreciation. “Ye’ll do nicely.” He gave her a shove toward the tents. “Go.” Peigi’s insides were trembling with disgust and fear, but she steeled herself as she left the campfire’s circle of light and approached the tents. How dare the captain treat her that way? Peigi had been naïve, but she knew her own mind, and this wasn’t what she wanted. He had no right to treat her so horribly. She wouldn’t stand for it.

She lifted the tent flap and stepped inside, but instead of seating herself on Captain Spalding’s bed, she walked past it and crouched down at the edge of the tent nearest the forest. She tugged at the canvas until a peg came free and the fabric lifted from the ground. Getting down as low as she could, Peigi crawled under the edge of the tent, slithering across the pine needle-strewn ground until she was back among the trees. She stood up and dusted down her skirts. Captain Spalding’s drunken voice could still be heard, and the light of the campfire threw a dim glow on the surrounding treetops. Escaping into an unknown forest in the middle of the night was fraught with danger, but Peigi preferred her chances with the wolves and whatever other creatures lurked in the shadows. She felt safer with them than with Captain Spalding. Swallowing down her fear and without knowing where she was heading, Peigi quietly and quickly moved deeper into the forest. Peigi had made the foolish decision to go with Captain Spalding. Now she was making the decision to leave him.

She’d gotten herself into this mess, and she’d get herself out of it.

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