Highlander’s Winter Rose – Fiona Faris

Pain sliced through his mind as Maximus Mackay felt the first arrow find its place in the flesh of his back. He cried out, but gripped the reins of his horse even tighter, not allowing himself to fall off as he continued to ride off into the night. The smell of blood filled the air, and his mind was in disarray. How could things have gone so wrong? He could feel the warm blood oozing out of his new injury and flowing down his back. He screamed at himself in his head, Ignore the pain! Ignore it, ye need to escape! The ambitious enemy soldier who had been chasing him down took the opportunity, after his falter from getting shot, to ride up on his left and, with a loud battle-cry, slash at him with his sword. Unable to react quickly enough to block the attack with his sword, he was forced to make a swift block with his short dagger. He unsheathed the small blade and held it up to parry. The blow glanced off the blade of his dagger, but was so strong, it knocked the dagger out of his hand, and the sword cut through his left forearm, causing an injury that was sure to leave a grotesque scar. Furious he attacked with his sword arm, lodging his blade into the man’s throat just as another arrow buried itself into his back. With a growl of pain, he dislodged his sword from the soldier’s body, swaying as he struggled to stay atop his horse. He could not fall here. If he did, then all would truly be lost. His trusty steed, Barny, neighed under pressure as he kicked the horse’s ribs again, pushing it to run faster. “Run Barny! Ye can dae it, lad! Get us out of here!” His words turned into a scream of pain as yet another arrow hit him. His horse performed its task; its hooves flying over the ground as it took off faster, nostrils flaring steam in the cold night air.

The enemy was too far behind him to catch up any time soon. He had killed the one man who had caught up with him. Now all he needed was to escape from the range of their archers. Faither… brother… The fingers in his left hand felt stiff as he held on to the reins with all his might, ignoring the pain in his arm from the large cut that was bleeding out of his sleeve. He swore, slapping himself to stay awake as his horse continued to push the limits, racing away from the danger behind them. He was not sure where he was headed, but he needed to get away. The idea was to reach a border town, or the neighboring clan to find help. “It is an ambush! We have been betrayed! I will take what men I have left and clear a path for ye. Ye must run! Leave the clan. I will be right behind ye.

Nay, if they are here then… I dinnae think that yer father and yer brother survived. Ye must leave now! Ye are all we have left, and there are too many of them. Ye are too important to die here today. Ye must live to fight another day!” He remembered the words General Grant had yelled when the attack began. He had protested. He knew the General was right, but he did not want to believe it. Unfortunately, he was not even allowed to hope, as moments later he saw the usurper sitting atop his horse proudly, with the bodies of his father and brother tied to his horse behind him. Maximus realized that he was still more of a boy than he had thought as in the heat of battle he could not think objectively, wanting nothing more than to run to his father and brother, despite knowing that they were already dead. It was with tears in his eyes that he watched the General fall from his horse, swarmed by enemy soldiers, after smacking Maximus’s own horse, and sending him off in the direction of the border. He promised that he would be right behind me… Faither, brother… He was in anguish, but he did not even have the luxury of mourning.

The enemy was probably right behind him. With his father and brother gone, he was the only one left with a right to the Lairdship. There was no way the usurper would allow him to escape easily. He knew the routes to take to hide his movements, but that only meant that he was riding for longer. He rode through the night, finally reaching a border village by midnight. He rode into the woods to avoid soldiers who might be on the road out of the clan. If the Lairdship had been usurped, it was safe to assume that the soldiers at the border would not be on his side. It was dark, with only the moon to guide him, and he slowed his horse to a walk in the dense forest so as not to injure it and himself. He constantly had to move his head to avoid low-hanging branches. Luckily, Barny was intelligent and avoided trees on his own while staying in the direction Maximus wanted him to go.

Now that Maximus was no longer galloping, and he was not bouncing around with the desperation to escape pumping in his veins, it became much clearer to him how tired and lightheaded he was. The pain from his injuries had become dull aches, but he had lost too much blood. He was getting sleepy… too sleepy. The last thing he remembered was the painful snap of his ankle as he fell off the horse, his fo o t t a n glin g in t h e s tir r u p s a t a n o d d a n gle , a n d lig h t s e x plo din g b e hin d his e y e s b e fo r e fa din g in t o d a r k n e s s. Chapter One “I am leavin’ now, grandmother. I promise to come see ye down at the monastery later.” Her auburn curls bounced as Rosallyn Grant shook her head before packing her hair up with a ribbon to keep the strands off her shoulders and face. The hair acted as though it had a life of its own, and after several hair-related incidences during her frolics in the woods, she learned that it was better to restrain it. She picked up the basket she had put on the ground and glanced back into the house where her grandmother was shuffling out of her bedroom with sleepy eyes. She smiled fondly as the old woman rubbed her face tiredly.

“Ye are leavin’ already me darlin’? It isnae even sunrise yet,” her grandmother said, peeking outside through the windows. It had been a whole month since her grandmother had slept at the house, so she knew that she would have wanted to spend more time together before she left again. Her grandmother helped with the sick at the monastery, so she only came to stay at the house once every month now that Rosallyn was an adult. “Ye ken that I prefer to be early, grandmother. I like the quiet in the woods when it has nae woken up yet.” She pointed out, turning to leave. “I made ye pottage for the day, so ye dinnae have to cook when ye get to the monastery. See ye soon!” With those words she set off, making her way into the woods with a bounce in her step. She breathed in the slightly moist morning air. Winter was coming soon; she could tell from the coolness that made her hug her cloak to herself and the sparse whiteness on the ground from early snow.

Rosallyn was a winter child, born with the beauty of the season etched into her features: eyes the color of the evergreen trees, skin as white as snow, and her lips as red as holly berries. It was said that her mother took one look at her and whispered her name, Rosallyn, saying she was like a single red rose in winter. She saw a deer dart off towards the stream as she approached and angled her head to one side to dodge a low-hanging branch. Ah, I cannae wait for the first day of winter. I miss faither. She ignored the slight pang of her heart at the thought and continued on the forest path that her feet had beaten into the ground over the years. She loved the winter because it was the only time that her family would be complete. Her mother had died when she was very young, and although to the villagers the only family Rosallyn had left was her grandmother, this was untrue. She was the illegitimate daughter of Robert Grant, the General of their clan who was still very much alive. The product of a love affair, Rosallyn could not live with her father as a noble and needed to live with her grandmother in their isolated little village instead.

Her father loved her dearly, despite her status as an illegitimate child, and visited her often. However, it was during winter that he truly was her father, living in their cottage with them and preparing to celebrate her birthday on the first day of winter. Usually, he would have arrived by now, when the chill was just beginning to permeate the air, but he was just running a little late, she told herself. Her father spent as much time with her as he could, teaching her ethics, politics, and regaling her with stories of the castle and the battles he led. She hung on to his every word. He was like a shining beacon in her eyes. He had visited them briefly a couple of weeks ago when he came to bring them some of his things in preparation for his stay and supplies that would keep them living comfortably. He did not stay long, only having time to hug her and talk briefly while the servants offloaded the things that he had brought with him, taking them into the house. He told her of a brewing war and mentioned that he had decided to bring his things over early because the battle might take his time, so he would be a bit late for her birthday. Ye are only nervous because father told ye he was preparin’ for war.

He told ye he would return, did he nae? Her father had indeed promised to return, assuring her that although he might be late, he would be there at the beginning of winter and he would have more stories for her after defeating the enemy. He had also promised, with a grin, to return with Boyd Tod, the only person from her father’s life as a noble who cared that she existed. The nobles knew of her as her father did not hide her existence, but they did not know her. She blushed at the memory of her father’s teasing looks as he told her what a handsome man Boyd had grown up to be. Boyd was the handsome soldier boy who had come to the village with her father when she was fourteen. His being fifteen at the time, the two had been instantly infatuated with each other, blushing through every conversation and doing their best not to do anything embarrassing in the presence of the other. She remembered standing at the kitchen window with a pie cooling on the sill, watching her father train him, his blond hair sticking to his sweaty forehead and his wiry frame rolling across the garden to dodge her father’s attacks. To her, he was the best-looking boy she had ever met, but then again, she had not met many other boys. He came to visit with her father for the two years that he was under her father’s tutelage, but by the time she turned sixteen, she did not see him again. He had become a soldier and was now making his way up the ranks, no longer under her father’s tutelage.

It had been seven years since she last saw him, and he had faded out of her memory, her time with him becoming something that only came to her in flashes, whenever she considered romance. In fact, she could hardly remember his face. Ever since her father had mentioned bringing him, however, she had thought about him a lot more. His blue eyes and blond hair were the clearest memories she had of him, along with his wiry, shirtless frame. He was not a boy anymore. What would he look like now that he was a man? Would she still find him interesting or attractive? What about her? She had changed quite a bit over the years, her hips filling out into round curves to complete her hourglass shape. Her grandmother told her that she was beautiful, but who knew what kind of women he had seen in the town? They were nobles after all. She nervously pulled her cloak even tighter around herself. She was twenty-three now, and romance was something that she needed to think about seriously. Her father seemed to think the same as he was already making jokes about Boyd, and why else would he be bringing him? Stop overthinkin’ everythin’, Rosallyn.

Father is goin’ to return soon, and Boyd will come along with him. Whatever happens then, will happen; there is nay need to give yerself a headache thinkin’ of it. Her thoughts calmed her some, and she pushed off her thoughts, focusing more on her environment. She usually enjoyed her morning walks, but being distracted by troubled thoughts had already taken away from her routine of admiring the forest on her way to find grandmother’s favorite berries for pie. She refocused her thoughts to her surroundings: the light of the rising sun, which was just beginning to touch the tops of the tall trees around her, making their leaves a lighter green at the top than those at the bottom where she walked. The dew on a spider’s web caught her eye, and she bent to watch as the sunlight hit the delicate strings, turning them into sparkling jewels in an instant. A light dusting of snow settled on some of the branches, the first snow for the season in the more mountainous regions. A smile spread across her face at the beautiful sight, and she was just about to straighten up and continue on her path when something caught her eye behind the spiderweb. She straightened up with a frown, squinting at the spot a few feet away from where she stood. “What is that?” she murmured to herself.

“Is that… blood?!” Immediately concerned, she rushed forward to the spot, touching her hand to the snowy ground and finding that it was indeed blood. It was in splotches, and as she looked forward, she found that the blood left a trail, like someone had been dripping blood as they made their way through the forest. She thanked the heavens that the bears were already hibernating for the winter. Her heart pounding in her chest, she followed the trail. It was not the wisest decision to follow a trail of blood in the woods, especially since she was straying from her path, but the thought that someone could be hurt at the end of the trail propelled her forward.

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