T he constant, almost maddening pitter-patter of rain was nothing unusual for Knapdale, which saw more rainy days than sunny ones. So, when Angus woke up in his chambers that morning, dreading the day that followed and the responsibilities that came with it, the rain didn’t stop him from deciding that perhaps it would be better to spend the better part of his day away from the castle. He had to sneak out, ensure that none of his guards would see him, as he had no desire to be questioned by them or to have them insist on escorting him. For a Laird, Angus sure had to answer to many other people when it came to his whereabouts and his plans, something that he had never grown to tolerate. Sneaking out of the castle was easy enough, as he had been doing that exact same thing ever since he was a little boy. He knew the ins and outs of the building, the paths that he could take to avoid being seen, and the not-so-secret door that led to the back of the castle. From there, all Angus had to do was go to the stables and grab his horse, and he could do so without worrying about being found out; the stable boy was used to seeing him there in the past few years, and often, he even knew when to have his horse ready. Angus didn’t know what it was that gave away the fact that he would be looking for a temporary escape; perhaps there was a pattern there that he couldn’t see, but the stable boy could, and Angus didn’t want to think about what that would say about him as a man. “M’lord.” The voice came from behind him just as Angus entered the stables, and he froze, worried that he had been caught. The childlike terror that he felt at being found out prevented him from recognizing the voice that he knew so well until the stable boy walked around and faced him, and only then could Angus take a deep breath and relax. “Ach, Roddy . ye almost scared me to death, lad,” Angus said, a hand coming up to lie over his chest.
“Forgive me, m’lord,” Roddy said sincerely, bowing his head a little. “Are ye on yer way out? I have the mare ready for ye.” There it was again, Angus thought. Once more, Roddy had been anticipating him, and he had the horse ready. Angus couldn’t help but ask, needing to know. “Roddy . how do ye ken that I’ll be coming here?” Angus asked. “How is the mare always prepared?” Roddy looked at Angus with a frown, blinking a few times in surprise. “I see ye leave the castle, and I prepare the mare . by the time ye come here, I have her ready.” Angus hummed, sounding almost disappointed. He had been expecting some sort of different explanation, perhaps something more exciting.
He would have much rather have been told that Roddy was psychic, or that he was at least very good at anticipating Angus’ needs, but the answer, as usual, was much simpler than that. “Here, m’lord,” Roddy said, as he handed Angus the reins to the horse. “Will ye be away for long?” “Not too long,” Angus said as he mounted the horse. “Dinnae tell anyone about this.” “Of course not, m’lord.” With that promise, Angus began to ride towards the edge of the castle’s land, and then kept riding, further and further. The rain had turned into a drizzle, and though it wasn’t enough to soak his clothes, thankfully, it was more than enough to turn his brown mop of hair into a flat, tangled mess, something that he would have to deal with later. Besides, the more unlike a Laird he looked, the better it would be for him. Every time he decided to leave the castle for the day, Angus would head to one of the villages at the edge of the MacMillan lands. Many of the people had seen their Laird, but not many cared in those villages, and Angus had soon realized that the locals there forgot about his face easily.
They lived too far away from the castle to be concerned with him or anything that had to do with their rulers, and he was virtually a stranger, blending in easily with the crowd. It helped that he kept his dirtiest, most unkempt clothes just for those trips to the villages, putting them on every time that he visited for anything other than official business. The village that Angus decided to visit that day was at the very edge of his lands, one that he had never visited before, as it was so far away from the castle. The sky was clearer there, and the rain stopped a little ways away from it. The grey clouds persisted, falling like a blanket over the village, but some sunrays managed to push their way through, illuminating the few buildings that were there with their golden light. The market was buzzing with people, merchants, and locals alike. Angus left his horse aside and then began to walk, roaming around the stalls and looking at all the different things that the merchants were selling. Most of it was food, naturally. There wasn’t much that those villagers needed other than food and necessities, and so there was no profit in selling much else. Angus didn’t visit the market for the goods, though.
No, he visited because he enjoyed watching the people walk around him, talking to each other. He enjoyed overhearing their conversations, and he enjoyed seeing how they acted around him when they weren’t aware of his true identity. People were utterly fascinating to him, and they were the sole reason why he visited those villages. As he was watching the locals around him, Angus’ gaze fell on two children, a boy, and a girl, who were apparently not a part of the little group of boys and girls who were running around, playing, and laughing. The two of them were quieter, talking only to each other, and Angus could see the smudges of dirt on their faces and the holes in the fabric of their clothes. He looked around the market, at least as far as his eyes could see, and he couldn’t spot anyone who looked as though they were the children’s parents, though the two of them looked alike, and so Angus concluded that they were siblings. No one seemed to be looking for them or even paying them any mind, and Angus felt his stomach drop as he watched them approach a stall and try to steal some bread. The moment that the boy’s hand reached for the bread, the merchant behind the stall roared furiously at him and grabbed the child by the arm roughly, shaking him as he shouted obscenities at the two of them. Angus’ blood boiled in his veins as he listened to the words that came out of the man’s mouth, but before he could intervene, another person beat him to it. There was a flash of rosy lips pursed together in displeasure, a small, slightly upturned nose, and a familiar jawline, and Angus froze on the spot, unable to do anything but stare at her.
He could feel his stomach revolt at the sight of her, and he instantly began to break into a cold sweat, beads of it running down his temple and making him shiver. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her. Angus kept repeating that to himself, reassuring himself that there was nothing to fear, but his mind was filled with images of Vika smiling at him, laughing with him, and in the end, betraying him. He could almost see her in front of him just as she was when he had last seen her, her mocking expression and the cruel twist of her lips. But it couldn’t be her. The young woman in front of him had auburn hair and brown eyes, unlike Vika’s lighter colors, and besides, Vika was still in the monastery, where Angus had left her after she had ruined his life. The resemblance, though striking, was nothing more than that. Still, Angus had to admit that seeing the young woman left a bitter taste in his mouth. Just as Angus came back to reality, his thoughts and worry about Vika dissipating slowly, he heard the merchant shout at the young woman.
“I dinnae care who did what. I want my money.” “I told you, I was the one who asked them to steal the bread,” the young woman said, and Angus immediately knew that it was a lie. The woman was dressed in nice, clean clothes, and she even wore a necklace around her neck. She wasn’t poor; if anything, she was one of the richest people in the village. “I . I don’t have money on me, but you must let them go, please.” “How do ye not have money, lass?” the merchant asked. “I’ve seen you here . I ken weel who ye are, I ken who yer uncle is.
” “I have it at home,” the woman said, clasping her hands together as she pleaded with the other man. “If you only let me go and—” “The necklace, then,” the merchant interrupted, putting his hand out as a request. The woman clutched onto the chain around her neck protectively, shaking her head, and Angus couldn’t blame her. A necklace for a loaf of bread hardly seemed like a fair trade. “Do ye ken what we do with thieves where I come from?” the merchant said, finally letting go of the boy’s hand, but walking towards the woman instead. “We cut their hands off. Do ye want that, little lass?” Angus had had enough. He pushed himself off the wall where he had been leaning against, and he walked up to the merchant, pulling some coins out of his pocket and throwing them to his face. “Here,” Angus said. “This is more than enough for the bread, so I think that the bairns can choose anything they want from yer cart, aye?” Angus watched as the man scrambled to grab all the coins, his greedy fingers wrapping tightly around them.
For a moment, when the merchant looked at him, he seemed as though he was going to refuse, but when he saw the sword that was strapped onto Angus’ belt, as well as the look on his face, he simply nodded. “Fine,” he said. “But do it quick.” The children glanced at Angus, as though they were waiting for his permission, and he gave it to them with a sweeping gesture. It was all that they needed before they squealed in delight and began to stuff their pockets and fill their hands with food. Then, Angus turned to look at the young woman who had so selflessly put herself in danger for the sake of those two children. As the Laird of the clan MacMillan, Angus had met many people before. He had met people who were rich and could afford to help the poor but didn’t, he had met people who were poor and shared their food with others, and he had met people who were good and kind, but he didn’t think he had ever met a person who would have ever taken the blame for a crime so that they could save someone else. He couldn’t help but wonder about the woman, who she was and what had prompted her to intervene when she did and the way that she did; he couldn’t help but wonder why she looked so much like Vika. Perhaps it was his brain playing tricks on him, Angus thought.
Vika had never left his thoughts, after all, not even after he married his now-deceased wife, not even after he planned a future with her, one that was never meant to be. “Thank you,” the woman said before Angus could say anything to her. “You’re very kind, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t paid him. I’m so foolish . I forgot my coins at home, and I didn’t have time to get them. I thought that that man would hurt those children.” Instead of speaking, Angus simply stared at the woman, tilting his head to the side a little as he did. She certainly didn’t sound like she was from Knapdale or the Highlands at all. In fact, she hardly sounded like anything, a medley of different accents, and the more Angus tried to figure out where she came from, the more he made his head hurt. The woman must have been used to such a reaction, though, Angus thought, because she simply smiled at him, instead of demanding to know why he was staring at her like that.
“Thank you, again,” the woman said, as she turned her gaze to the two children, who had filled up their pockets with as much food as they could carry. She smiled at them, but it was a sad smile, and Angus couldn’t help but share her pain. “It’s no wonder that they are starving . when the Laird doesn’t care for his people, this is what happens. The people starve, and they fall ill, and they die.” “The Laird?” Angus asked, rather dumbly. “Ye think that the Laird doesnae care about his people?” “You think that he does?” the woman asked, instead of answering his question, but it was all the answer that Angus needed. “Look around . look at all the people who can’t afford to eat or have a roof over their heads, and then you’ll see that the Laird is no good. The people are suffering, and where is he? Does he care? It’s no wonder that everyone thinks he’s gone mad.
” Angus opened his mouth slightly, as though he was about to speak, but no words came out. What was he supposed to say to her, after all? Was he supposed to defend himself? Was he supposed to agree with her? Angus had never thought that there were people in his lands who couldn’t afford to eat or to have a proper house where they could live, and hearing that that was the case shook him to his core. If he had known earlier, he would have done his best to keep all his people safe and fed, he would have done anything to ensure that they wouldn’t fall ill or go hungry at nights. It gave him no pleasure, knowing that the very people that he had sworn to protect suffered under his rule. Then there was the added insult to the wound. He had heard the rumors that everyone whispered about his back, claiming that he was a madman. He had even heard people whom he considered to be close to him, people that he thought he could trust, wonder if Angus harbored such hatred for his wife and their child that he was the cause of their death, rather than the childbirth. He had heard some of his own men swear that they had seen him kill his own new-born child, just because she was a girl. Angus had tried to pay no attention to all the rumors, but they seemed to have reached the edges of his land, and the last thing he needed was for his subjects to think he was a deranged murderer. Still, he could hardly defend himself without the woman and everyone around them, realizing who he was.
“What else do they say about the Laird?” Angus asked, unable to stop himself. He needed to know what people were saying about him, even if knowing would sting. “Are you not from these lands?” the woman asked him, and Angus hesitated, but she didn’t seem to be waiting for an answer, thinking that her assumption was correct before she continued. “Well, some, like my uncle, insist that he’s a good man, but others . others say that he will ruin the clan. They don’t trust him.” Angus hummed to himself, trying to show indifference, though judging by the fists that were clenched by his sides, he doubted he had any success. “I canna say I ken the man, but a Laird is a Laird for a reason,” Angus said. “If people didnae trust him, then he wouldnae be their Laird.”