The sky was clear; Marcas Monroe remembered that much. By any account, it was a beautiful day. The young teenager would have usually spent it out in the forest riding his horse, hunting, exploring the natural world. He was only fourteen; still a boy, not yet a man, but his body was bursting with natural strength and he couldn’t wait to grow up. Impatient, he was always urging a beard to grow on his jaw so he could be more like his father. He wanted the responsibility of adulthood and the feeling of being a man, of being able to make a difference in the world. Because of his birthright, he had a great destiny, one where he would lead his clan just as his father did. The worship he had for his father was overwhelming, and in Marcas’s young mind, his father was the greatest man to have lived, and that would ever live. He was a hero. And on this day, the hero was out there, riding again. The laird was leading the charge against the enemy clan. Marcas wasn’t sure what the fighting was about. There always seemed to be some kind of fight going on, whether it was between other clans or bandits. Highlanders were a spirited lot, and their emotions burned in their blood. Outside, Marcas could hear roars and a stampede as the armies clashed.
They were out in a field, and the two armies looked like a roiling storm cloud as they came together in battle. Swords gleamed as they caught the sun. It should have been a peaceful day. It should have been a quiet day, but instead, the air was filled with anguished cries of men who were giving up their lives for their clan. Marcas’s hand twitched. He was itching to fight, but the last orders his father had given him were to stay at the castle and defend the keep. Marcas’s sword hung at his side, ready to be drawn if need be, but his gaze was locked on the battle. “I should be out there,” he said in his boyish burr. His voice had yet to drop, although sometimes he purposefully lowered it for effect. His jaw was still smooth, and while he was tall, he still had room to grow.
“We need ye here,” Moira said. His young sister stood near him, watching out the same window, but upon her cherubic face was a look of horror at the scenes unfolding before them. “Da told ye tae stay and defend us.” “Aye, that he did,” Marcas said. Before the battle, his father had looked at him solemnly and made him swear that he would stay within the boundaries of the castle and only fight if the enemy stormed the gates, no matter what happened. Marcas had made the promise, although now he regretted it. He was the son of the laird, and although he was only fourteen, he knew his place should have been beside his father. There could have been nothing prouder than father and son fighting alongside each other. What fear that would have struck into the enemy! Instead, he was left in the shadows, waiting and watching, helpless. Marcas couldn’t help but feel this had been a deliberate ploy by his father to keep him out of harm’s way.
But why? Did his father not trust him on the battlefield? Did his father think him weak? The mighty warriors of the clan would be covered in the glory, but none of it would be for Marcas. He would have to sit and sullenly listen to all the heroic stories of battle, wondering when it was going to be his turn to be a man. He was ready. He knew he could handle it. And yet his father still held him back. Marcas’s heart hammered in his chest. Temptation whispered in his mind, telling him that he should be out there, that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he was on the battlefield. After all, what was his father going to do? Perhaps this was a test to see if Marcas would do the right thing even though he had been strictly ordered not to. His father couldn’t be mad at him if he conducted himself well on the battlefield. His reputation had to begin somewhere; why not today? His hand drifted down to his hip, and his fingers curled around the hilt of the sword.
His lips pressed together and his gaze lingered on the battlefield. He imagined himself running down the sloping path, roaring with all the passion in his young heart, brandishing his sword and joining in the fight. He had been training since he was very young and had no doubt of his ability. Once he had grown and was strong enough, he was confident that he could beat even his father in a duel. He smiled as he imagined being carried back to the castle on the other men’s shoulders, a hero, being cheered and celebrated. Songs would finally be sung of him, and it would be a proud day where he could take his place as a man. Part of him wanted to have the opportunity to fight. His eyes were a mixture of blue and gray, and they gazed out at the path, almost hoping for one or two enemy soldiers to break through the lines and storm the castle. At least then, he might have his taste of glory, but for the moment, his father stood between him and manhood. In the back of his mind, a wish was made that would define his life.
It crept in the shadows of his soul, and once it was made, it could not be undone. He wished that he had the opportunity to be a man, that he had the opportunity to seize his birthright. He was tired of being a mere boy. He was ready to be more than a child. “Look at him Marcas, doesnae he make ye proud?” Moira said, her eyes wide as she pointed to Laird Monroe. Despite the chaos on the battlefield, it was impossible not to see the laird cutting through the enemy with his huge, heavy sword. His hair was tied back in a long ponytail and it swung like a pendulum as he moved through the battle, dealing death left and right. Bodies fell before him as though he was hacking away at branches. It almost looked effortless, and while Marcas watched him, the hope in his heart diminished. He knew he had a ways to go from becoming a man like his father.
The sword that hung by his side was smaller and thinner. He remembered a time when he was younger and had tried to pick up his father’s sword, but it had been impossible. His father had laughed a deep, rumbling laugh as he came and picked it up effortlessly. Marcas wondered if he was ever going to be as strong as the laird. Even now, he struggled to pick up the sword. Sometimes he thought he would never be like his father. Blood sprayed in a mist around his father as he slashed with his sword. The enemy quickly realized that a beast was among them, and they scattered, leaving the laird to chase them as they fled. His thunderous roar carried to the castle as he searched for a worthy foe. In a way, it seemed as though he was going to win the battle by himself, by the sheer force of his rage.
Marcas’s attention was stolen momentarily by a flickering blaze that burned nearby. The flames licked a small building, consuming the roof. Thick, dark smoke rose in a nasty, malevolent cloud. Moira tugged at Marcas’s sleeve. His gaze ran across the battlefield, back to his father. The laird raised his sword and was urging his men to continue the fight, to push the enemy back. The sun gleamed brightly, as though it was blessed with radiant energy. There was a roar as his men listened and started to pour around him, ready to drive the enemy away once and for all and make them regret they had ever dared to think about attacking the Monroe clan. It seemed as though it was over, as though the fire of the battle was dying into embers and the chance for Marcas to prove himself a hero was gone. I will have to wait for the next one, he thought.
But there were still things that had to happen. There were still stories that had to be told. Somewhere in the battle, a nameless soldier notched an arrow and fired. It arced up, a single black line against the clear blue sky, and then descended back down, its metal point sharp, gaining strength as gravity pulled it down. Furious energy gathered until it was released at the point of impact as it hit its target. Nobody apart from the archer knew if it was a skillful shot or if he had merely been fortunate, but the end result was the same. Laird Monroe looked down in shock as the arrow protruded through his heart. Blood poured down. He slumped to his knees, and those mighty hands that gripped his mighty sword weakened. The sword fell to the ground.
Laird Monroe followed, a dazed look on his face. It was as though a mighty tree had been felled. It took his men a few moments to realize what had happened. Some gathered around him, seeking to protect him, but it was too late. Others were emboldened and enraged. Their cries of war became even louder as they routed the enemy. Back in the castle, Marcas felt as though his heart had been ripped out of his chest. Moira gasped. Marcas held her close and placed his hand over her eyes, trying to protect her from the grim sight, but it had already been witnessed. Marcas’s eyes were wide.
Time seemed to stand still as the impossible happened. He never thought he would see his father die. Not like this. There were so much vigor and strength about the man that it seemed wrong for the world to turn without him taking a breath. All at once, destiny had changed, and Marcas was due to take his father’s place. Suddenly Marcas didn’t want to be a man. He wanted things to stay the way they were, the way they had always been. A stone of sorrow replaced his heart as his throat ran dry. Tears filled his gray-blue eyes, and his cheeks were stained with the crystal tears that flowed. An enemy soldier may have shot the arrow, but Marcas was the one who had made the wish.
It was time for him to be a man. K 1 irsten Gallach gazed out of the window as the world rolled by outside. The carriage trundled at a steady pace, being drawn by two horses. The verdant shades of the Highlands were peppered with bursts of color from various flowers; she hoped the brightness of the day was a sign for the rest of her life. Since the day was nice, the carriage was open. Her brothers, Neil and Ramsay, were sitting by the horses. Ramsay had the reins. Kirsten had the freedom of the entire carriage, but she nestled in the crook of the seat, taking up as little space as possible. As they rode, the air whipped around her and played with her long, curly brown hair. It cascaded down past her heartshaped face and along her shoulders, resting against the rise of her breasts.
She had a short, buxom figure, and her brown eyes twinkled with anticipation. She had known this day was coming for a long time. Ever since she was young, she had been aware that her destiny was to marry for the sake of her family. Not too long ago, she thought she might have to take the place of her cousin Islay and marry another laird, but fate had won out and Islay had found her true love. Kirsten’s heart warmed when she thought of Islay and how happy she was, and she hoped that she could be just as happy. She was in the twilight of her youth and the dawn of a new chapter of life was approaching, where she would have to say goodbye to everything she knew and was used to, but she was hopeful that she could greet it with open arms and embrace the future. While it was a man’s duty to protect the clan through battle, it was a woman’s duty to ensure the clan’s strength through alliances, and she was ready to do her duty. “Are ye sure ye should be smiling, Kirsten? Ye hae heard the same stories about Laird Monroe as I hae, aye? I mean…he sounds like a beast! I heard that he ripped a man’s head clean off his shoulders with just his bare hands! He’s a proper Highlander, aye, but I’m not sure I like my sister being his wife,” Neil said, his voice simmering with amusement. Ramsay glared at him. Kirsten sighed.
She was used to Neil and Ramsay teasing her. They had done so for as long as she could remember. “I’m sure the stories about him are exaggerated. Stories always are,” she replied. “Aye, ye hae the right of it Kirsten,” Ramsay said, nudging Neil in the ribs. “Those stories are just spread by townsfolk. They need something tae keep themselves occupied. Da would never hae agreed tae this if worried about Kirsten’s safety.” While Kirsten knew that was true, doubt did flare inside her heart. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that everything would work out as easily as it had for Islay and Callum, and in truth, there were plenty of stories that had been told about Laird Monroe, perhaps enough for there to be some truth in them.
It was difficult to dismiss them all as lies, and although she tried to battle against it, fear did reside in her heart. Neil winced as a result of the jab in his ribs, and he scowled. “All I’m saying is that we should be a wee bit more cautious. What if he is as bad as the stories say, and he hurts Kirsten?” Kirsten’s eyes widened at this, and her throat ran dry. She had never thought about being hurt by a husband before. She rubbed her head. She had been struck there during Islay’s wedding when bandits had attacked. The pain had been instant and knocked her unconscious. For days after, she had a throbbing sensation, which thankfully had eventually faded, but the memory remained. She shivered in fear.
Never had she been more afraid than when the bandits had attacked, and she realized that she wasn’t immune to fighting even though she was not a soldier. She never wanted to be in that position again. Marrying a powerful man, a laird no less, should have ensured her protection against such a fate, but what if the threat came from the laird? No, it was too terrible to think about. Ramsay was right. Their father would never have allowed her to marry such a man. Even so, Kirsten found herself gnawing on her lower lip and gazing out at the landscape around her, trying to find peace in nature. She hoped with every ounce of strength in her heart that she would find the same kind of happiness as Islay. She had always been a good, obedient girl; surely she didn’t deserve any hardship. Neil glanced back at Kirsten as he asked his question. Ramsay sighed and kept his gaze focused on the road ahead.
He jerked the reins a little, urging the horses to increase their speed. They whinnied in response. “Dinnae pay any attention tae him, Kirsten. Ramsay, dinnae try and scare her before she marries. There’s naething tae worry about. Laird Monroe is just a man, no different tae any other. Besides, even if he does hae a temper, Kirsten haes always been a good lass. She would nae dae anything tae incur his wrath and give him reason tae be angry.” A man, aye, Kirsten thought. And how many contradictions were in a man’s heart? She had seen kind men—her uncle for one, and her father.
They had always treated her fairly and with great affection. There had been plenty of men within her estates as well who had always treated her with respect and compassion. But she had also seen these men grow enraged and summon the fury of a thunderstorm when they were upset. She had endured the teasing taunts of her brothers, although they only ever claimed to do such things in jest. However, there were other men as well. There were men who had black hearts, men who turned to evil without any hesitation. Some men were willing to murder and steal and do all kinds of horrible things. Up until recently, Kirsten had led a rather sheltered life, but after the attack at Islay’s wedding and hearing about everything that Islay had been through, she knew the world could be a dangerous place. It sent a tremor through her heart. She hoped dearly that she would never have to experience anything like that again.
Ramsay’s words did little to alleviate her fear. There was much she did not know about Laird Marcas Monroe, although she would soon find out. Ramsay directed the horses across the open fields and through the thick forests, before riding up a sloping hill towards the Monroe estate. The huge building was as old as the mountains that stood in the distance. The Monroe clan were said to have been some of the first settlers in the area, and their duty was to protect their land. The house was hewn from firm rock. Over the years, the estate had expanded and so the building looked like a patchwork assortment of different building techniques and materials as knowledge had progressed over time. As she gazed out over one of the fields, she saw a monolith standing in the middle, and a sword driven into the ground. Something about it seemed ominous; she wondered exactly what she was getting herself into