Highlander’s Unchained Heart – Ann Marie Scott

We cannae allow this tae happen again! Something must be done!” Arran Mcaiwn stroked his short beard as he listened to his council, rage simmering just under the surface. The McDougal clan’s most recent attack had been heinous, slaughtering innocent farmers along the two clans’ border. Arran himself had placed a wee bairn of only two in a shallow grave, draping the little boy with his tartan. What the McDougal clan had done was unforgivable, and while his clansmen wept for those that were lost, his council wanted blood to be shed. And blood would be shed. “Enough,” Arran finally said, banging his fist on the scarred table. The entire great hall was shoulder to shoulder with his council and warriors, each with murderous glints in their eyes. Servant girls fed them all a constant stream of ale and whiskey, the smell of overripe rushes and unwashed bodies heavy in the air. As much as Arran would like to grieve privately for the loss of such an innocent life, he had a duty to uphold to those that were waiting on his word—a duty that sometimes weighed heavily on his shoulders. If he gave the command to go to battle, there would be lives lost on both sides. Some warriors were in this room with him now that would not come home to their families, that he would oversee the return of their bodies to their loved ones. He, too, could not come home, which would leave the laird seat to his younger brother, a lad barely past the tender age of eighteen and much older than Arran had been when he had taken over the clan duties. On top of the loss of life, his clan and keep could sustain an attack of their own while he was gone, not able to protect those that counted on him. It was the same heavy argument he had with himself every time he decided to wage battle with another, yet no matter how the odds were stacked, his answer was always the same. “We will attack in two days,” he said, his voice ringing out over the quieted hall.

“Gather all the able-bodied men and weapons that ye can find. This time our enemies willnae make it home tae celebrate what they have done tae our clan, tae our people.” Cheers rose, and Arran stood as those in attendance started to file out of the hall to do his bidding. “Vera good,” his uncle and second-in-command stated, slapping him on the back. His uncle Fergus was of advanced years and no longer capable of wielding a sword as he once had. Even though Arran was of the ripe age of thirty, he knew his uncle still saw him as the scared lad of six, burdened with the title long before he was ready. It had been his uncle that had carried the clan’s duties until Arran had reached the age of twelve, mentoring him to become the laird that he was today. Arran dropped back into the chair, rubbing his face with his hand wearily. “I dinnae know what else tae do. If I didn’t, they would have regardless.

” His uncle joined him, pushing a tin mug of ale in his direction. “Ye did what was right, Arran. Yer da would have done the same.” Arran picked up the mug and drained it without speaking, knowing that not even the ale would dull the rage he felt in his chest. His da had been a great and powerful laird, one that did not hesitate to strike down his enemies and protect his clan. It was during one of his battles that a sword, a McDougal sword at that, struck him in the chest. The blow had been fatal. Arran could still remember the day his da’s body had been brought into the keep, draped in his tartan with the bloodstained sword laid on top of his chest. His ma had wailed for days, locked in her chambers, and the entire clan had sunk into a deep period of mourning, their future uncertain. But life must move forward, and after his da had been buried in the ground, Arran had been named the next laird.

Now that bloodstained sword hung at Arran’s back whenever he rode into battle, avenging his da’s death with each swing. “Aye,” he finally said, setting the mug on the table. “He would.” “Let me come.” Arran looked up to find his brother, Malcolm, at the table, his jaw set. While Arran carried his da’s looks, Malcolm favored their ma, though both had the trademark red hair bearing their Scottish heritage. Unlike Arran, Malcolm was no warrior. Arran had tried to train his brother on the art of fighting, but every time Malcolm struggled with a sword. His other brothers, Alec and Graham, showed promise of being warriors even at their young age, but since they were barely out of the nursery, he couldn’t take them with him. Nay, Arran knew he could not have any of his brothers at his side.

Though old enough to be on the battlefield, Malcolm would distract him too much, causing Arran to be worried about his safety. “Nay,” Arran decided, seeing the clench of his brother’s jaw. “’Tis yer responsibility tae ma and the keep.” “Nay!” Malcolm shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “I will go this time and protect our clan. ’Tis mah right.” Arran forced his emotions to remain in control as he rose from the chair, bracing his hands on the table. “Yer not ready, Brother.” “When will I be?” Malcolm asked, his eyes burning with rage. “Ye keep me here like I am a woman, like I cannae defend mahself! Mah duty is at yer side, riding into battle.

’Tis how Da would have wanted it tae be.” While that much was for certain, Arran knew that if their da were alive, he would see the weakness in his younger son as Arran did. While it pained him to tell his brother he could not join him in battle, Arran knew it was for the best. Carefully, Arran placed his hands on his brother’s thin shoulders. “I need ye here, Malcolm, in case I dinnae come back.” “Ye say that every time.” “’Tis the truth,” Arran replied evenly. “Ye are the next laird without any heirs. I need for ye tae protect the keep in mah absence.” It was the sobering truth.

“But Alec and Graham are just as worthy heirs as I am.” “And far too young,” Arran stated. “Do this for me, just this once.” Some of the fight left his brother, and he stepped out of Arran’s grip, shoving a hand through his shoulder-length hair. “Everyone knows I’m not fit tae be laird.” Arran chuckled. “’Tis willnae matter if I’m dead and gone, little brother. Come. Let’s tell Ma what has transpired.” The brothers made their way up the winding stairs to the second level of the keep, where the current lady of the keep was nestled in her sitting room, her embroidery balanced on her knee.

At one time, Morea Mcaiwn had been a force to be reckoned with. She was known for her exploits just as much as her husband had been, wielding a sword as well as any Scot could. In fact, she had met her future husband on the battlefield, holding a sword to his throat until he yielded to the bonnie lass. But after the birth of her sons, she had sheathed her sword and retired to the keep, becoming one of the lasses that waited for their husband to return from battle. When he hadn’t, she had sunk into deep despair, merely a shell of her former self. A broken heart was rumored to be her ailment, and while she counseled Arran on matters related to their clan, he always saw the sadness that was lurking in her blue eyes. “Mah sons,” she stated as the brothers walked into the room, “what news do ye bring me?” “We are going tae battle,” Arran said dutifully, leaning down to buss her cheek with his lips. “Malcolm will stay behind tae protect ye and the others.” “A dutiful son,” she murmured, her gaze on Arran. “But who will watch over ye, mah son?” “I need no one,” Arran reminded her.

He was a warrior to be feared, not coddled. She chuckled, patting his cheek with her hand. “Aye, Son, but one day ye will find someone ye cannae live without. Mark mah words.” It was a tale she enjoyed spinning every time he went off to battle. While more lairds would have already taken a wife, Arran had not. He had no wish to leave a lass behind fretting for him or bairns without a da if he was struck down in battle. Nay, a warm, willing body in his bed every once in a while soothed his needs enough. “We will depart in two days,” he told her instead, “and bring victory tae the Mcaiwn clan.” “Just like yer da,” she stated, her eyes watering with tears that never seemed to dry completely.

“Aye, well, come home in one piece. Mah heart couldnae take another blow if I lost ye or yer brother.” Arran’s throat closed, and he walked out before she could see the emotions churning in his eyes. He could not tell her that he would come back, for he would die to protect his clan, his family. Just as his da had done.

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