Highlander’s Heart – Mariah Stone

HEY, SCOT. SCOT, WAKE UP.” Ian opened his eyes and lifted his head, ignoring the ache in his old wounds. Moonlight fell on the dirt-packed floor through tiny vertical windows up by the ceiling. It was warm, even at night. Around him, other slaves wheezed peacefully on the benches by the walls. The air smelled of unwashed bodies, dry dirt, and the orange tree that grew outside the windows. Even after eleven years here, Ian missed the fresh air of the Highlands. Abaeze, the slave from Africa, whose bench stood right next to Ian’s, raised his head, his eyeballs glowing white in the darkness. “Yes?” Ian whispered back. “What is it?” They spoke Arabic, the common language here. Learning it when he’d arrived had been the difference between staying alive and dying. Abaeze glanced around, sat up, then slithered soundlessly to Ian, quick and efficient. A slender man even taller than Ian, he was as dark as the night, his hair a black cloud. Abaeze crouched next to Ian’s bench.

“Abaeze hear a thing,” he whispered, his accent thick. Since Abaeze had only arrived recently, his Arabic was limited, but he could get his point across. “You be careful today. You watch you.” A bad feeling settled in Ian’s stomach. “For what? Something during the fight?” The man nodded. “Abaeze sleep and see death. You watch you.” Fear gripped Ian’s throat in its icy hand. With that final message, Abaeze left Ian and settled back on his bench.

Soon, he wheezed rhythmically. Ian lay on his back and stared at the lime-cured white ceiling. Death. Would it be so bad, to let it finally take him? What hope did he have with a life like this? He’d never see the Highlands or his family again. He always asked this question before a fight. His opponent and he needed to kill the other to live, to continue giving their masters the bloody satisfaction of power. The entertainment. The rush of a bet. And on and on. Every fight he’d won since he’d been here meant he’d taken a life.

Ian had lost count of how many he’d killed. He’d become famous. The red-haired unbreakable beast of the caliph—the Red Death, they called him. Or simply, the Scot. Because the caliph valued him as a rare find—no other Scotsman had been captured. Thank God. He’d fought Germans, Spanish, Indians, Turks, English, Africans, and many, many Arabs. It didn’t matter what skin color they had, what language they spoke, if they had a family back home, mayhap children and a wife. They all fell from Ian’s hand. Because he wanted to live.

But maybe Abaeze had seen the time for him to welcome his own death. Was he ready? Ian asked himself that question repeatedly during the sleepless night and again in the morning. The sun shone into the room, and slaves brought food. The men were let out into the inner yard to clean and sweep. He was still thinking about it during the midday meal. Other slaves were afraid of him. Abaeze, being relatively new, was Ian’s only friend. He’d had friends here before. They all were dead now. The fights were always in the afternoon and towards the evening, when the sun had already started to set, to avoid the main heat.

As always, Ian and the others were given armor first, then led into a windowless chamber full of weapons—scimitars, spears, and shields. There were two doors: one lead to the courtyard where the caliph held the fights, the other—back into the small wing of the palace meant for slaves. “You watch you,” Abaeze repeated, taking a sword. “You watch you, too,” Ian said. “Thank you for the warning, friend.” The door to the courtyard opened, bright light blinding Ian in the darkness. They waited to see who’d be called first. But instead, many feet pounded against the dusty ground outside. Guards who stood lined along the walls shoved the first of the men standing closer to the courtyard door, yelling for everyone to get out. Abaeze and Ian exchanged glances.

“Looks like we fight many against many,” Ian said. “I will have your back.” “And Abaeze fights for Scot.” They shook hands. Then the crowd pushed them forward, and they were out in the daylight. Bloodthirsty shouts and cries filled the air. Warriors beat their weapons against their shields. There weren’t many spectators for these things, just the caliph and his rich, important subjects and their invited guests. They all sat up on the second-floor balconies —away from the warriors, away from the danger of slaves turning against their masters. But the yard, which normally held only two fighters, swarmed with slaves.

They stood in two groups, beating swords and spears against their shields, ready to launch at one another, just like in a battle. This would be quick and bloody and deadly. They set off and the audience bellowed. Shields and swords clashed. Spears flew and pierced live flesh. Blood sprayed and bones cracked. Taken lives disappeared in swirling clouds of dust. A dark-skinned giant launched at Ian with a hammer. Ian raised his shield, which met the man’s blade with bone-crushing power. He stabbed, and Ian jumped back.

His opponent’s sword slashed empty air next to Ian’s abdomen. Ian stabbed from under his shield and struck right below the man’s chin, sinking the blade into his head. The next blow came from behind, someone’s sword scratching against Ian’s armor. He whirled to see a quick, slender Arab. Ian fought him, but more came from all sides. They all must have decided to finish him. Someone slashed his shoulder, pain burning him. Another went for his neck, but Ian ducked. A third attacked from the left side, and Ian barely managed to hit him with his shield. He fought for a while, losing strength, being chased back.

As soon as he fought one, two more appeared. Abaeze managed to rescue him once, but soon he had to fight his own battle. Death looked into Ian’s eyes and invited him to come along. Maybe it was for the better. He deserved death. God knew, he’d taken enough lives. But his body kept fighting, kept clinging to life. And then everything changed. Screams rang all around—from behind the walls of caliph’s palace, from inside it. Everywhere.

Giant rocks began falling on the buildings. Arrows flew and hit the ground and the men. Ian’s enemies stopped fighting him, ducking under their shields, running for their lives. The caliph and his guests disappeared inside the building. “Abaeze! Abaeze!” Ian cried, looking around. Men lay dead, crushed under the rocks, blood soaking dry dirt. There were men Ian had been sharing a room with. Black, white, brown bodies with gashes and wounds lay around the courtyard. Something shielded the sun, and a shadow was cast over Ian. He glanced up, seeing a rock fly right at him.

This was it. The great, bloody death. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Abaeze leap towards him. They flew to the side, the rock hitting the place where Ian had just stood. Dirt and gravel showered down on them. “Thank you,” Ian mumbled. They stood up. The buildings around them were crumbled, corners destroyed. People screamed in pain, some crushed under the rocks, some suffering spear and scimitar wounds. Rocks continued falling from the sky, no doubt shot by distant catapults.

Then the arrows flew. Masters, guards, servants, and slaves were scattered on the ground, wounded or dead. An arrow swooshed past Ian, and relief flooded him at the near miss. Then someone yelped. He turned and froze as an icy wave of horror washed through him. Abaeze sprawled in the dirt, the arrow protruding from his chest. “No!” Ian fell to his knees by his friend’s side. Abaeze gurgled blood and reached out for Ian’s hand. “You watch you,” Abaeze murmured. His eyes locked with Ian’s, desperation in them.

“No.” Tears burned Ian’s eyes. “I am finally free,” Abaeze said. “Go, Scot. Go.” His eyes stilled, and Ian knew then that his friend would never be a slave again. He pulled him to his chest and hugged him. Then he saw that the gates were still open. No guards. None alive, anyway.

Another rock flew at him, and he rolled onto his side. “I’ll watch me,” he whispered. “Thank you, my friend.” He rose to his feet and hurried towards the gates. Mayhap, the dreams of green-andbrown Highlands wouldn’t be just dreams, after all. Mayhap, he’d finally get a chance to go home. But if he made it through the dangers on the way, would his clan take him back once they knew what kind of man he’d become? I CHA PTE R 1 nverlochy Castle, Scotland, July 2020 KATE ANDERSON STOOD in front of the ruins of an ancient castle. This was the farthest she’d ever been from home, from New Jersey. She’d wanted to get away her whole life, and now that it happened, she wished her sister, Mandy, and her nephew, Jax were with her. Instead, by her side stood Logan Robertson, the man who would define her restaurant’s and her family’s future.

Kate’s heart pounded. She tapped her palm against her hip to relieve the nervousness building up within her. She should just relax and enjoy the private excursion he’d taken her on. It wasn’t like one wrong word from her would make him kick her off his chef training program. The day was warm and lush with greenery. The air smelled of grass, wildflowers, and a barely noticeable whiff of river water. Cars whirred by somewhere in the distance from time to time. “This is my favorite place in the neighborhood.” Logan brushed his hand through his dyed blond hair. Funny.

He’d appeared naturally blond on TV. “If only those walls could talk, aye?” After three days of training in the TV studio, Kate was finally somewhat used to talking to an international star like she would to a regular human being. He was as charming and as pleasant to talk to as he seemed in his shows, especially with his soft Scottish burr. “Oh yes.” Kate didn’t even have to look up that much—turned out he was only an inch taller than her. And from close-up, his forehead was too smooth to be natural, and the skin around his eyes was frozen. Did he get Botox treatments? “The walls would probably say ‘thank God these people don’t roast boars every day.’” Logan laughed and shook his index finger at her playfully. “You’re a funny lass. Keep that up when we film.

People will love you. They will queue up at your restaurant to get a spot.” He’d given Kate a couple of looks that she thought might be flirtatious over the past couple of days. He always laughed at her jokes, which weren’t as good as they were nervous. But she’d told herself she was reading too much into it. “Hopefully they’ll come for my food, not for my jokes,” she said. “I’m okay with the first, but I can barely keep up with the second.” Logan shook his head once. “When I’m finished with your restaurant, you won’t need to settle. You’ll be famous, lass.

” He winked. “Shall I show you around?” They walked through the ruined gate under the ancient walls into a green, sunlit courtyard with four crumbled towers that rose at its corners. Even looking at them, Kate still couldn’t believe she was actually in Scotland. “I’m so fortunate you picked Deli Luck,” she said, her insides vibrating with excitement. “When my sister, Mandy, told me we won—” “Your sister?” Logan glanced at her with curiosity. “They called your sister first?” “Yes. She applied. I had no idea. If she’d told me from the beginning, I’d have locked her up in the storage room until she changed her mind. Never in my life would I have thought you’d pick us.

” Kate was surprised Mandy had taken such initiative, considering the depression she struggled with sometimes kept her from getting out of bed at all. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Aye, Deli Luck isn’t exactly what we normally go for. It’s too American. Too traditional. And that’s where, I think, the problem lies. You’re too safe with your burgers, spareribs, and fries, aren’t you?” Kate’s neck burned and she looked down. She picked at a rock with the point of her boot and kicked it as they walked. Those had been her exact thoughts right from the beginning. It was her clients who had forced her to abandon the creative pot roast with a Thai coconut sauce, quinoa burgers, and spareribs masala.

She’d wanted to combine unusual with traditional since the beginning. As the owner and the chef, she was ashamed to admit to him that the community had pressured her into changing her menu. And now, bankruptcy threatened Deli Luck in about a month if nothing changed. “That’s what the market in Cape Haute, New Jersey, wants, Logan,” she said. “They don’t want anything different.” “True. But what you have is too familiar. That’s why you’re barely makin’ ends meet. You need to find that fine line between old and new. That’s where I come in.

Dinna worry, lass. You’re a family restaurant, right? Tell me how you started.” Kate put her hands in the pockets of her jeans, something she always did when she felt uncomfortable. Talking about her past hurt. She’d never even discussed their childhood with Mandy, let alone reveal things to a stranger. “I never knew my dad. My mom died when I was eighteen. To support my sister and myself, I worked in local restaurants. I cooked my whole life, and people love my food. After a couple of years, some locals loaned me money to open my own place.

In a way, it’s a community restaurant. I haven’t repaid them all yet. That’s where the biggest chunk of income is going to. Your show helping us with renovations and the whole new design of the menu and billboards and all that—that’s going to be exactly what we need to save the restaurant from the bankruptcy.” Bankruptcy would mean losing the whole building—including the apartment where Kate, Mandy, and Jax lived. The three of them would be on the streets. Mandy wouldn’t have her antidepressant meds and the therapy she needed to stay afloat. They wouldn’t be able to send Jax to a decent school and make sure he got medical care if he needed it. This show was Kate’s last hope. “A community-funded restaurant.

” He narrowed his eyes and studied her with curiosity. “Great story. But don’t you feel like they own you?” Kate chuckled, her cheeks heating up. “Of course they own me. Hence burgers, ribs, and fries.” He tilted his head back and laughed. “This is goin’ to be a fabulous show. When they find out what I have planned—it’s goin’ to be a Boston Tea Party in New Jersey.” Kate hugged herself. She wanted to stand out, to be liked because she was different.

Instead, she’d spent her whole life trying desperately to be liked because she fit in. And look where it had gotten her. She chuckled. “As long as Deli Luck turns out to be a new independent country afterward…” He tilted his head back and laughed. When he looked at her again, his eyes became intense, taking her in as though he were peeling off her clothes. Kate chided herself for imagining a star like Logan would be interested in her. “You’re a bonnie lass, aren’t you?” he mumbled and took a step towards her. Kate tensed, physically making herself stay in place and not back away from him. She opened her mouth to make a joke out of it when his phone rang. “I need to take this, lass.

” He lifted the phone to his ear and walked to the other side of the courtyard towards the big gate. Kate exhaled, the tension in her muscles softening. She wasn’t used to being treated kindly. And he had no reason to be nice to her other than to make a great show. She looked around. What a beautiful, mysterious place this was. She agreed with Logan—if those stones could talk, they’d tell many stories. What would cooking in a medieval kitchen be like? What dishes did they make in the past? What spices and kitchenware did they use? Her stomach growled with hunger. Thank goodness she always packed food with her—the aftereffect of her childhood. Kate was a hoarder.

Well, not literally. Mainly, she hoarded food in her stomach and fat on her thighs. She never knew if she really was hungry or if she just felt panicked to stock up while food was available. Something she’d done ever since she was little. Kate opened her bag and fetched one of the BLTs she’d made for her and for Logan. It was made with fresh ciabatta bread, crispy bacon she’d picked up at the local market yesterday, cherry tomatoes, and a touch of the truffle mayonnaise she’d bought in an artisan food shop in Edinburgh. Instead of simple lettuce, she used romaine salad. She settled on a rock baking in the sun, near a tower with a railing around the entrance. Turning her face to the sun, she closed her eyes and imagined sitting here many years ago when the castle wasn’t ruined yet, back when it swarmed with people. What sounds would there be? Would it smell like grilled meat? Like mud? Like horses? “The wee bread ye have, lass, it looks delicious,” a female voice said next to her.

Kate opened her eyes. A pretty young woman in a long dark-green cape with a hood stood by her side. Her hair was red and shone in the sun. She stared at Kate’s sandwich as though it were the food of the gods. “Uhm,” Kate said. “Do you want some?” Kate cooked food for a living, but she didn’t remember anyone staring like that at what she prepared. “Oh, may I?” the woman said. “Ye dinna mind?”

.

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