Highlander’s Hope – Mariah Stone

“Cruachan!” Marjorie groaned. She must be dreaming. Why else would she hear her clan’s war cry? The straw mattress scratched her skin. The room was quiet and smelled like dust from the drapery that hung from the canopy. Was she alone? She tried to lift her heavy eyelids, but then she remembered… If she opened her eyes, she might see him. And he’d want to strike her again. Or take her again. No more pain, please. No more humiliation. She wanted dark, numb oblivion. She allowed it to take her away from the aches in her whole body. Something odd caught her ear, and she clung to the sound like to the edge of a cliff. The noise came from outside and below. Cries of pain. Metal ringing against metal.

And then… “Cruachan!” The sound was louder now, coming closer. It was a chorus of many men. Was she imagining it? Was she so desperate and broken that she was dreaming of home? The air smelled faintly of smoke. Footsteps pounded against the stone floor outside the room she was being kept in. The door opened with a screech, the iron handle grating. Then it closed. This sound, of this door, meant one thing. He’s back. And if he was here, there would be pain. Quick, heavy steps approached.

He breathed heavily and paced around the room. His chainmail clanked softly. He hadn’t touched her yet. Maybe he hadn’t come for her. But then why is he here? Outside, the cries intensified. Something heavy battered against wood. “Cruachan!” They have come. Hope blossomed in her chest, giving her strength. She opened one eye—the other was swollen shut—and turned her head to the light of the slit window. Alasdair MacDougall paced along the wall of rough, dark rock.

His nostrils flared, his eyes wild, his curly, dark hair unruly under the chainmail covering his head and shoulders. He tapped the flat side of his sword against his hand. He glanced at her and froze for a moment, his face blank. “Ye awake, wee bitch?” He covered the space between them in three steps. Even without any strength left in her body, Marjorie pushed against the bed to try to drag herself as far away as possible from him. The blanket fell off, and her bare thighs with dry, caked blood flashed white and reddish brown. She wanted to cover herself, but she was too weak. His scent, one she was all too familiar with by now, reached her. He reeked of sweat and his male musk. He dropped his sword, and it fell with a loud clank.

Grasping a handful of her hair at the top of her head, he lifted his other arm and slapped her. Blinding white pain shot through her head. Then another hit came on the other side. Her eyes must have burst inside her skull. She didn’t even cry. He brought her face close to his, and she smelled his bad breath—a mixture of ale, alcohol, meat with onion. “Ye happy now, precious princess? Ye thought you were too good for my proposal, but now everyone will see what a worthless slut ye truly are.” She sucked air into her lungs. “What are ye talking about?” she managed to say. “Yer clan of Cambels are knocking at our doors.

But as long as I have ye, I have the power.” Him saying her family had come for her was different from her thinking it, or imagining it. It was real. They had come. She smiled and then openly laughed in his face. She gathered saliva in her mouth and spat right in his face. Her spit was bloody, and she laughed even harder. It hurt, but it was also cleansing. She’d fight a battle in here while her clan fought for her out there. “‘Tis over, ye raping bastart,” she said.

She continued laughing, even though his face paled and she might be dead in a moment. He slammed his fist into her temple, and she sank into a dark fog. Through that fog, the image of two men and their swords clashing floated in and out of view. “Ye will die, ye maggot!” someone shouted. Steel clashed and flashed in the shaft of light coming through the window. Cries of pain tore her mind. Then came a scream—deadly and desperate—and a loud thud of something heavy falling to the floor. She woke up to a familiar voice calling her. A dear, dear voice she’d known all her life. “Marjorie.

” Someone stroked her head, but it felt like knives cutting her skin. She struggled to open her eyes and managed to lift one lid just a little. It was Craig. Her brother. Bloody and covered in bruises, he knelt by her bed. He was smiling, his eyes red, his dark hair disheveled. Tears blurred her vision and burned. He was here. That meant Alasdair was no longer a threat. Craig would take care of her.

He’d take her home. Relief flooded her. The echo of gratitude and love filled her chest. Despite her cracked and bruised lips, she managed a smile. “Brother,” she whispered. The door was flung open, and their cousin Ian stepped in. His red locks were sweaty, his face was covered in cuts and bruises, but he was alive. “I found her,” Craig said. “Aye, good. Let us go.

The way is free.” Craig gave her a little nod. She knew he was promising her that all would be well. He carefully wrapped her in a blanket and picked her up. Pain shot through her. As he carried her from the room, she saw Alasdair’s dead body on the floor, a pool of blood around him. She would have smiled and laughed, but she was empty. Craig walked to the landing of the wooden stairwell, where their clansmen stood waiting. Their stern faces were illuminated by the torches as Craig carried her by. Ian went down the stairs before Craig, checking around the corners for danger, his sword atilt.

But as Craig walked down the steps, the fighting stopped on the lower floor as well. Her father stood on the next landing, his face distorted with pain as he met her eyes. She tried to smile reassuringly to show she wasn’t angry at him for not protecting her or coming sooner. Craig carried her farther away, and she saw her Uncle Neil and his sons. Sorrow and fury shone in their eyes. As they exited the tower, she saw John MacDougall, chief of the MacDougall clan and Alasdair’s father, held by her two clansmen. He jerked helplessly, his pasty face twitching in silent rage, no doubt realizing that his son must be dead if Marjorie was in Craig’s arms. He should never have allowed Alasdair to kidnap her and treat her like he had. He should have stopped the madness and sent her home. Everything that had happened to her, had happened under John MacDougall’s watch.

As far as she was concerned, he was as guilty as his son. Craig finally stepped out into the clear daylight of the courtyard surrounded by stone curtain walls, and Marjorie closed her eyes. Many men had died today to save her, and she couldn’t bear seeing evidence of it. Not right now. Craig walked for a while and then sank to the ground. She opened her eyes. Their grandfather, Sir Colin Cambel, lay on the reddish grass. There was a deep wound near his heart, but blood didn’t flow from it. His eyes were closed, and his skin was pale. He was completely still, only the wind played with his white hair.

Craig took their grandfather’s hand in his and squeezed it. Ian stood beside them and lay his hand on Craig’s shoulder. Craig whispered something to their grandfather, and a tear fell from Marjorie’s eye. Then her brother stood and walked with her to the horses and carts. “We have a cart for ye. ’Tis full of furs and blankets. Ye’ll be home soon.” He lay her down and covered her in blankets, and warmth began returning to her. She felt safe. And free.

She was free, yes, but the humiliation, the pain, and the feeling of being unworthy corroded her heart. It still held her prisoner. She curled into a ball and began to cry. “Oh, Marjorie, sweet, dinna.” Craig patted her side. “Please, dearie. I’m sorry I didna come earlier. As soon as we kent who took ye, we came.” She couldn’t stop her sobs. Craig sat next to her on the cart and hugged her, covering her like a heavy, protective blanket.

When she finally did stop crying, she lay still and tried to adjust to the light sensation of freedom in her chest that felt alien. What would it feel like to be around people again? To go from room to room? To go out into the sunlight? To ride a horse again? After two sennights in captivity, she’d thought she’d never do any of those things again. She opened her eyes and looked at Craig. He looked concerned, and pain and fury fought in his eyes. “What can I do?” he said. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Ye saved me. Ye avenged me. Ye killed the bastart.

There’s nothing more that ye can do.” He squeezed her hand and nodded. “Now we will work on healing ye. Ye’ll be yer old self soon.” She inhaled sharply and closed her eyes. As much as it hurt to admit it, that would never be true. She was a stone inside now—cold and hard. She’d never let a man touch her. She’d never marry. And she’d never let anyone do what Alasdair had done to her ever again.

Chapter 1 Lands near Loch Awe, Scotland, 2020 The best thing about a guy trip through the Scottish Highlands was the absence of technology. Even after seven years of civilian life, Konnor Mitchell’s Marine training kicked in, and he had no problem orienting with or without a map, fishing, cooking on a fire, and sleeping on the ground. Actually, the best thing about the whole man-against-nature thing was that it occupied his mind, leaving little time to think of his life back in L.A. or his past. With no cell phones, no TV, and no electricity, he had nothing to rely on but his brains, his muscles, and his best bud Andy. “How much longer to the Keir farm?” Andy looked up at the sky. “The clouds are coming in darker than your best mood.” A leaden sky hung above the dark-green pines and ashes like an iron ceiling. Nature around them stood still, as if waiting for something.

Branches didn’t rustle, and grass didn’t waver. The air was humid and warm, full of the scent of forest and moss and something strange…lavender, though Konnor didn’t notice any around. He looked down at the map in his hands, and a flicker of a movement caught his eye. Something green flashed between the trees. He blinked but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Must be all the whiskey he’d consumed during the last week. “We’re probably going to be soaking wet either way,” Konnor said. “It’ll take us until the evening.” He and Andy had hiked along the loch up north towards the farm. The map showed there was a small ruin at the bottom of the glen behind them, and if they made their way back towards Loch Awe, they’d come to the ruins of Glenkeld, a medieval castle.

They’d interrupted their whiskey tour with what supposed to have been a three-day hike. But due to their relaxed pace and drinking the samples of whiskey they’d acquired from several distilleries, this was their fifth day out already. Between setting campfires, assembling and disassembling the tents, cooking hot dogs on an open fire, and fishing in Loch Awe, they’d gotten carried away and lost track of time. The trip was kind of a long bachelor party for Andy, who was getting married to Natalie, his girlfriend of eight years and the mother of his child. After the kind of childhood Konnor had experienced, he hadn’t thought it was even possible to be so deliriously happy, but Andy was a good man, and he deserved every happiness in the world. Konnor was happy for Andy. But he had no idea how his friend did it. Perhaps others possessed the secrets to a happy relationship and how to be a good husband and a good dad. He certainly didn’t. Andy frowned at the sky.

“It might still pass,” he said, though with no conviction. Konnor said, “Let’s hit the road. I need to call my mom.” As much as he was enjoying this hiking trip, Konnor needed to get back to civilization. He knew how a thirty-three-year-old man needing to call his mommy might sound to some, but his best friend knew better than to make jokes about it. Konnor supported his mom financially, and it was most important to him that she knew she was safe and protected, that he would never let anyone hurt her ever again. Right before they’d gone hiking in the wilderness, he’d told her he’d leave the cell phone in the hotel but call her in three days. Andy hurried after him. “Come on, bro, you’ve left her alone before. You were in the Marines for Christ’s sake.

” Having the most perfect folks in the world, Andy had no idea how it had been for Konnor and his mom. He’d never had to watch the closest person in the world to him be beaten to a pulp and not be able to do a single thing about it. Konnor’s stepfather was dead, but he’d taught Konnor a valuable lesson that he lived by to this day. He could never let his guard down, never trust that those he cared for would be safe without his protection. He hadn’t been able to protect his mother as a child, but he could do it now. “Leave it alone,” Konnor said. Andy nodded but didn’t look impressed. “If you say so, brother. You know, when we get back to L.A.

, Natalie has a friend she wants you to meet.” Konnor groaned. Here we go. At least every six months, Natalie wanted to set him up with someone. “Andy…” Konnor said by the way of warning. “I’m with you, man, but will you please go, just this once? Or she’ll drive me crazy.” Konnor scoffed. “Word on the street is you’re a catch. Successful business owner and apparently man candy.” He put air quotes around that.

“Put me out of my misery, man.” Konnor scoffed. “You’ll be more miserable if I go out with her once and never call her again, then Natalie will kill you. I’m not looking for a relationship. Never will be.” Why would he? Every relationship he’d been in had ended up bringing pain to the women because of what they’d all called his emotional unavailability. Andy clasped him on the shoulder. “After all these years, I still think you’re a puzzle.” “There’s nothing puzzling about me. I’m simple.

I have no intention of getting married or having a girlfriend. Ever.” They walked in silence for a while. A soft whisper of leaves and branches rustling went through the woods, and the sky darkened even more. A small shiver ran across the back of Konnor’s neck. Andy shook his head. “I will say one last thing. You’re miserable, and you know it.” “I’m fine,” Konnor growled. “I’m great.

I have everything I ever wanted.” Thunder rolled in the distance, and they both glanced up to the dark-gray sky. “Let’s get a move on,” Andy said. “Come on.” He sped up, but Konnor didn’t. Seeing his friend moving off in the distance, he realized he needed a break from him for a while. “You go on, Andy. I need to take a leak. I’ll catch up with you.” Andy stopped and glanced at him with suspicion in his eyes.

“Are you sure?” Konnor sighed. “I’m sure the summer rain won’t melt me.” “All right.” Andy hurried down the track. Once he was out of sight, Konnor took in a lungful of air and breathed out. He didn’t really need to piss. The cold wind picked up, and the scent of lavender and freshly cut grass rushed by him. Suddenly a woman’s voice broke the silence. “Help! Help!” Instinctively, Konnor reached to where he usually kept his gun. But of course, it wasn’t there.

The only weapon he had was a Swiss army knife in his backpack. He looked around. Andy was nowhere to be seen. Trees swayed, hissing in the wind, and leaves and branches flew by. One narrowly missed his eye and scratched his cheek. Thunder rolled closer, and the granite sky flashed with lightning. The storm was almost right over him. Was the woman stuck somewhere? Rocks crumbled from somewhere behind him. Konnor squinted back down the trail but couldn’t see anyone. The wind brought the woman’s scream again.

Or was it just trees moaning as the emerging storm assailed them? The scream came again, and his pulse accelerated. It was coming from behind him, up the trail. He sprinted in that direction as fast as he could with his backpack on. “Help!” Trees and bushes flashed by as he ran. Twigs cracked, and pebbles rolled under his feet. The scent of lavender and freshly cut grass grew stronger. The voice was louder now, so the woman must be somewhere nearby, but he still couldn’t see who was calling. “Down here!” The voice came from behind the trees and bushes. Through the gaps, he saw the edge of a cliff. He stepped through the undergrowth and looked down a ravine that was about two hundred feet wide.

It was as though an ancient earthquake had cracked the ground in half here. There was a steep, rocky slope of about twenty or so feet right in front of him. A few pines grew straight out from the rocks. The ravine was shielded by a steep slope on the other side. A creek flowed along the grassy bottom below. It looked fertile and cozy, like a small, secluded piece of heaven. Something about it was magical and mysterious and unreal. There was a woman down in the ravine. She was sitting on a small pile of rubble and holding her shoulder. “Are you okay, ma’am?” Konnor called, trying to shout over the wind.

She looked up, and even from here, he could see a bright smile. She had long red hair and wore a medieval-looking green dress. “Oh, lad, can ye help me?” she said. “I hurt my arm and canna go up.” The wind picked up, and the next gush stole Konnor’s breath. He looked the slope over. It was really steep, but he could more or less see a path down. The question was whether he could bring an injured person back up. First, he needed to get down there and see what was wrong with her arm. “Don’t move,” he said.

“I’m coming.” “Oh, bless ye, lad!” Thunder shook the world, and lightning split the sky in half. Thick raindrops began to hit Konnor’s face. He needed to hurry. He lay his backpack on the ground and began making his way down the slope. Rocks and rubble crumbled under his feet. He hung on to bushes and the occasional pine that grew in between the hard rocks. Heavy raindrops fell faster now, and he had to blink rapidly. His leg slipped, and he tumbled down. Earth and sky flashed.

His military training kicked in, and he kept his arms close to his body to avoid his organs being hit. Something smacked against his ankle, and red-hot pain blinded him. He got a hard blow to his head, making the world explode. Finally, he stopped rolling and lay still. He felt like he’d been put through a meat grinder. Willing the dizziness away, he opened his eyes. Raindrops fell from the leaden sky, and he blinked. His left ankle hurt like hell. Was it broken? With a groan, he sat up. When he moved his leg, fire shot through his veins.

Goddamn it. His first aid kit was up in his backpack. His wrist ached, too. No doubt, there’d be a bruise there tomorrow. His Swiss watch, a gift from Andy, had a hair-thin crack on the glass. Thankfully, it was still working. It was waterproof and as reliable as a German car. He’d hate to lose it. He looked around. There was a heap of rubble and gray mortar nearby.

The woman sat and stared at him with an emphatic grimace. Rain fell heavily all around them, but while Konnor’s clothes were getting soaked, the woman didn’t look wet. Weird. “Does it hurt?” she said.

.

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