Highlander’s Poisoned Heart – Fiona Faris

Kyle MacDonnell looked down at the MacFarlane lands stretching out before him. For the last year and a half, he’d avoided people for fear of being discovered and forced to meet justice for a crime he did not commit. Now, as the wind swept over the glen, he watched people from all over scurrying in and out of McFarlane lands, gathering for the Highland Games. A year and a half had passed since his exile from McDonnell lands. He knew the risk—to be found would mean death for him. Kyle studied the throngs of people setting up camps and carting their wagons in from the outlying roads. Kyle stood up, brushing the dust from the palms of his hands. No amount of lingering would conceal him. If there was any chance of him clearing his name, this was it. He was relying on the crowds to keep himself from being noticed. Kyle’s heart raced as he walked his horse towards the settlement, stretching out from the main keep. He pulled his hood further down over his eyes. A man bumped into him, and a jolt of fear raced through Kyle. He instinctively grasped the hilt of his sword. He could hardly process the man’s apologies over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.

He straightened himself and pushed further along the road, trying to get his bearings amongst the chaos of celebration. Rich aromas filled the air as vendors and homes alike cooked to welcome the arrival of clans from all over Scotland, in hopes of uniting the people following the failed Jacobite revolution. An energy existed, a charge in the air, full of both excitement and stress as the people hurried to prepare for the event. Kyle made his way towards the grounds marked out for the games. In addition to lodgings, there was someone he needed to find. His best hope for finding both was to make it to the heart of the gathering. Kyle could see the greens in the distance. He was ready to break from the packed road into open pasture. “Watch it, wench!” Kyle’s path was blocked when a woman fell back in front of him. He watched her face crease in pain, her arms scraping against the rough stones beneath her as she caught herself on her elbows.

Rolls fell around her, speckling the mud with their light brown crusts. The warrior’s eyes took in the scene. A thick man with a dark red face barreled out from the shadows approaching her in a hurry. He could see the poor serving woman’s eyes widen with fear. She tried to back up in the mud, further soiling her gown as she scrambled away. “Ye think ye can jus’ waste all this food an’ get away without a scrape?” The man towered over her. The wiser man would have stepped away, not wanting to risk discovery. No part in Kyle’s brain alarmed him of the risks. Before he could think of the consequences, he was between the scared woman and her employer. Kyle stood between the two, staring the man down.

He knew this type of man. He would not have hesitated to batter the woman, no matter how many people bore witness. He was the kind of man who felt powerful preying on the weak—in Kyle’s eyes, a coward. All his life, he’d stood against men such as this. They were an intolerable blight on mankind. “Get outta my way, boy, ye’ve got no part in this!” The man shook with his anger. A crooked vein throbbed in his neck, dark and purple with rage. Kyle looked down at the woman for a brief moment. It pained him to see her afraid and helpless. Her eyes darted between the two in fear.

She hurried to her feet, trying her best to pick up the soggy bread melting into the mud beneath her. “I can’t do that,” Kyle said. “I’m warnin’ ye, boy! This ain’t yer fight. This is between me an’ my,” he jabbed one of his sausage fingers into his chest, “charges.” “I’m not standin’ back an’ watchin’ ye beat that woman.” Kyle stood his ground. The woman stepped back from them, terrified and speechless. The man raised his fist. Kyle squared off his stance, preparing for the blow. Before anything happened, a voice cut through.

“Angus!” Kyle was blinded as his vision blurred with a wild flame of hair. He took a half step back as a woman at least a foot shorter than him intercepted the argument. The man’s fist shook before falling to his side, still clenched and trembling. “Get outta me way, Neilina!” “How dare ye talk to me like that,” she stiffened. “Ye have no right, jus’ like ye have no right hittin’ my charges—nae yers, Angus, mine,” Neilina commanded. Kyle looked at her in awe, still gasping at what had just taken place. She stood up to the man, her eyes fierce and cold as ice. Kyle watched as Angus blubbered, the steam seeming to rise from his skin as if Neilina had poured water on the fire burning in him. “That wench los’ me my mornin’s work with her clumsiness!” “I don’t care how much she lost ye. I won’t stand fer violence in me household.

D’ya understand me, Angus?” She looked the man hard in the eyes. “Or do I need tae bring ma faither into this, huh?” Kyle felt invisible, eclipsed by this woman’s strength and poise. He pulled his hood up and stepped back, hoping to slip away before any more onlookers gathered around the scene. He gave the serving woman a brief nod. She mouthed the words, “thank you,” before Kyle continued on towards the Highland Game grounds. “Wait!” called Neilina’s voice from behind him. Kyle stopped for a moment before deciding it was not wise. He pretended not to hear her and continued forward, hoping she would let him go, but never quickening his pace. There was no such luck. Within moments, her quick step caught up with him.

He could hear her panting for breath. “Wait,” she said. Kyle obeyed. He did not turn around, still uncertain what he should do. Neilina stepped in front of him and looked up at him with her bright, intelligent eyes. She was a beauty to behold, with prominent cheekbones, fair skin kissed by a light blush, and a wild mane of red curls contrasting with her blue eyes. “Thank ye fer what ye did back there,” she said. He could see the earnestness in her gaze as she regarded him. “It was no trouble, m’lady.” “Aye,” she nodded, her curls bouncing on the breeze.

Both hands braced her hips. “But t’were. Ye picked a fight with Angus. Ye must be mad!” She smiled, and Kyle felt his stomach tighten at the sight of her white teeth between her perfect formed lips. Kyle did not have a smile to return. There were too many other things clouding his mind to find pleasure. He gave her a courteous nod and tried to continue. She did not let him go. Her footsteps squished in the mud alongside him. “Yer nae from around here,” she said.

“Aye.” “Ye come fer the games, then?” Neilina asked. Kyle eyed her, trying to assess her angle. After a moment’s thought, he replied, “Not tae participate, if that’s what yer askin’.” Neilina nodded, chewing on this a minute, trying to find another way to connect with the mysterious warrior. She nodded in understanding before meeting his eyes. “My name is Neilina, daughter o’ the Laird o’ these lands. Will ye walk an’ talk with me a moment?” she finally asked. Kyle looked around. There were less people in the area, and the ones around were absorbed in their tasks.

He looked down at Neilina. From what he knew, she was a lady and an important one at that. There was a risk in talking with her at all. He already made himself more visible than planned. Yet, something in the way he looked at her made him curious and unable to protest. He nodded. Neilina’s face broke into an ear to ear smile. “What should I call ye?” Kyle’s tongue froze to the roof of his mouth. The last thing he wanted to do was to lie to her. Using his first name, though, was dangerous.

There was no telling who she knew or would talk to about the incident with the serving girl. With the pressure of her fixated eyes oppressing him, he blurted out the name that haunted the forefront of his mind. “Robert.” The name of his best friend. “Where’re ye from, Robert?” Kyle sighed and looked down at the soft ground. The rain drizzled in a light mist around them. There were few answers that could hold up to investigation. After a moment, he looked at her again, trying to judge her character and intent. “I’ve jus’ returned from Rome, an’ have come to look fer work.” He looked around.

“The games seemed like a good place tae start.” Neilina followed his gaze, sweeping over the people and festivities, “Aye,” she agreed. “On pilgrimage?” She looked up at him, eyes brimming with wonder. Kyle nodded. “Aye.” Neilina’s eyes regarded him with amazement. Kyle felt vulnerable beneath her gaze and the weight of his lie. It was a good one, but still, he knew the journey was one for the devout. He tried his best to remember the names of the seven churches often visited by people heading to the Pope’s seat in Rome, completing the Via Francigena in search of deliverance from England. “What an adventure,” she gawked, wagging her curly head.

“I’d love tae hear all ‘bout it. What kind o’ work are ye lookin’ for? I’m sure I can help find somethin’ suitable.” Kyle cleared his throat. “I’m a tutor.” His words seemed to stick to his cheek, and when they came out, they seemed to run into each other in a hurry to get out. “French, Italian —” he coughed, trying to clear the dry tightness closing his throat. Although he could learn just about anything and often labored whenever hands were needed, he was a man of the sword. If he claimed a specific trade, it would not be long until the men who made their livelihoods caught onto his novice skills. “French!” Neilina started with excitement. “I’ve always wanted to speak French.

” “Nous le voulons toy—” Kyle said dryly. Neilina opened her mouth to question what the phrase meant before snapping her lips shut abruptly. Her smile faded, and her brow creased with deep thought. Kyle watched as she pulled a red wind-swept curl from her lips. He started to walk forward. She snapped from her reverie and continued after him. “Have ye found a place tae stay yet?” “Nay,” he said. “If ye’ll teach me, I can pay fer yer lodgings an’ a small salary, if,” she grinned mischievously, “I’m satisfied with yer services that is.” Her smile faded into a look of consternation once more. Kyle looked at her and witnessed nervousness wash over her features.

“But ye have tae promise me somethin’.” He said nothing, captivated and curious by the beautiful young woman. “I don’t want anyone tae ken. Me father,” she wagged her head, her curls flying around her shoulders, “wouldn’t approve.” Kyle could not believe his luck—secrecy, lodgings, and a salary. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “Aye, I can do that.” Neilina beamed up at him with excitement, “Are ye busy now?” she asked. Kyle looked around him. Nowhere did he see his friend—the man he’d stolen the name of. He turned back to Neilina.

“Nay, can’t say that I am.” “Good,” she smiled, “I ken jus’ the place fer ye.” A smile threatened to form at the corners of Kyle’s face as he watched her swivel on her heel and start leading the way. He was amused and could not help but follow. She came in out of nowhere like the wind, and now, he found his livelihood tied to her. There was nothing for him to do except see how it all played out. The young man could not have chosen better lodgings. It took them nearly an hour to walk to the small farm. Neilina handled everything while Kyle waited outside. When she returned, she waved for him to follow and led him to a small croft at the back of the property.

“This is it,” she said. “I hope it’s tae yer satisfaction.” He could see the way her cheeks tightened with concern as she waited for his judgment. “It’ll suit me jus’ fine.” She let out a dramatic sigh. “I’m glad tae hear that.” She cocked her head to one side, staring at him intently, “Ye don’t much tae say, d’ya?” She smiled as if teasing him. This time, he could not help but smile in return. Her carefree glee seemed to infect him, lightening the darkness that overcast his light. She met his eyes before looking around her.

“I suppose I should be goin’. There’re,” she paused, “many preparations tae make, an’ I doubt Angus’ll be qualmed long without me presence. May I return tomorrow?” Kyle nodded. They stood there for a moment in awkward silence before Neilina gave him a nod and turned. Kyle watched as she walked away, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she traipsed over the hill out of sight. The last thing he saw was her fire-red hair glimmering beneath the small rays of sun breaking through the clouds. As pleasant as Neilina’s encounter was, Kyle was relieved to find himself alone with his thoughts. Making it through the crowds was stressful enough without the stress of knowing his presence was noticed. For the first time since entering MacFarlane lands, Kyle felt like he could breathe. The croft was small, a single room with a hearth, bed, and a small table tucked into one corner.

The rain picked up the moment Kyle stepped foot inside as if the sky was waiting for him to enter before cracking open. To his relief, there was a small amount of kindling still piled next to the fireplace. He could hear the rain pelting the roof, and was relieved to find there were no leaks to worry about. Once the fire was lit, the croft warmed into a cozy hovel for him to hide until he found what he was looking for.

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