Rescued By Valan – Jennifer Siddoway

The sliver of a crescent moon crept out from behind a sea of clouds, illuminating the rocky coast on the isle of Barra. A group of villagers gathered on the shore to mourn, consumed by grief at the loss of their fallen brother. They settled around the funeral pyre, taking seats on the wooden benches. Valan sat amidst the somber gathering and glanced up at the sound of crackling fire. An orange glow from the ash and flame lit the sea of faces, their expressions filled with grief. Valan’s mother, Ailsa, sat on the bench beside him and he looked over at her cautiously. He worried it would remind her of the funeral after his father died and bring back painful memories. Yet, she remained impassive and stared unblinking into the fire. Her wavy, brown hair was tied back neatly with a scarf and the pale light cast a shadow across her graceful features. Their clan had lost many good men over the years, it came with their livelihood. They were a band of pirates, their skill at sailing was unparalleled in the Scottish Isles. Such a life had brought them a dangerous reputation, and it came with a heavy cost. Their loss made the women of Clan MacNeil strong; they could withstand anything. They learned to survive even when the cruel hand of fate took their loved ones. Ailsa was no exception.

She passed that strength on to her sons, and he admired her for that. Ailsa must have felt his gaze because she glanced back at him and smiled. Valan placed his arm around her shoulders and sighed, turning his attention back toward the pyre. On the other side of him, Kent leaned in close to whisper, “Who dae ye think the laird will choose as the next captain? Callum has tae have a successor.” Valan shrugged and took a drink from his tankard. “I dinnae ken. I’m more worried about the ones he left behind. Callum was a good man, ’twould be a hard legacy tae follow after.” Kent had been Valan’s friend since childhood, but they did not always see eye to eye. Sometimes his ambition got the best of him, and Valan would have to rein his companion in.

He sensed that now may be one such occasion and mentally prepared himself to remind Kent of the true reason they were gathered. Kent nodded and said, “Aye, but the facts are the laird will have tae appoint a new captain tae take his place. If the role remains vacant, the men in the village will begin tae quarrel—they’ll eat each other from the inside. It dinnae matter who he chooses, as long as it happens soon—it could be tonight.” Valan shook his head. “Nae anyone—the laird will have thought this through. Whoever he chooses will have tae be a leader of men, someone with experience that a crew will fall behind.” Kent nodded in agreement and they both glanced over to the pyre. Who would be the one to take Callum’s place? There were always four captains in the Barra, that had been the custom of Clan MacNeil for as long as anyone could remember. Four men who were skilled in battle and could lead the others on raids across the sea.

Therefore, the role of captain was not appointed lightly, they were the pillars on which their small community relied. Currently, the men charged with the responsibility were: Graeme, Alexander, James…and the one who recently died, Callum. He was the reason the clan had gathered on the shore. Graeme, the youngest, and most accomplished seaman of their day sat across from them beside his wife Elspeth. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a braid and she rested a hand against her rounded stomach. Graeme was his captain—the one Valan had sailed under for eight years and who had taught him how to fight. Graeme was an expert swordsman, and one of the greatest men Valan ever knew and had the privilege to call his friend. Valan looked to him with the same affection he would his own father. “Whoever the laird chooses, ’twould be a great honor,” Ailsa muttered. “They would be foolish nae tae accept.

Though I fear fer them already.” “If it were me, I’d pick Alistair,” Kent whispered. “He has the skill and experience tae run a ship.” Valan glanced at the massive, beast of a man sitting quietly on a wooden log. Graeme’s quartermaster was an impressive seaman, he had the skill and charisma to become a captain. Yet, Valan knew something that Kent did not. “Aye, Alistair would be a fine choice—but he has nae desire fer it.” Kent scoffed at the suggestion. “How dae ye ken?” “We’ve spoken about it many times,” Valan informed him. “Trust me when I say, he wants none of it.

Alistair is content serving as Graeme’s quartermaster.” “Then he’s a fool. Anyone who would turn down the appointment makes an insult tae the laird.” Valan pursed his lips. “True. Let’s hope it dinnae come tae that.” “Fine,” the seaman told him with a sigh. “Who would ye choose?” Valan shrugged, not caring to speculate on the prospect any more than he had to. “’Tis nae my place tae say. I just hope Siobhan and their children find some comfort.

” Valan glanced over to Callum’s widow pointedly. Her pain was evident in her expression. The grief, the loss, the fear…all of it. Valan remembered that same feeling when his father died—it was like part of him died as well. Now their sons were without a father, that was a tragedy within itself. It was easy to forget while they were out at sea, there were ones who depended on them at home, families who loved and cared for them. Kent sighed. “Aye, ye’re right. It’s selfish tae be thinking about what could happen. We should be comforting Siobhan and tending tae her needs.

” The three off them watched the quiet strength of the captain’s widow and stared at her in awe. She stood at the front of the growing crowd with a tattered shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Two children stood beside her, all of them staring at the auburn flames as they rose higher into the sky. The red hues of the crackling fire reflected in her eyes, which misted over with tears. Ailsa took in a deep breath of air, and Valan reached out to take her hand. “I’m here,” he told her softly. They both understood that Siobhan’s hurt would not be eased in the coming days, her grief would only pass with time. The small community of pirates would come together and support her. No lady of the clan would be left alone in their time of need. A salty breeze blew past them and Valan frowned.

The men on the beach grew restless, their conversations getting louder, as they waited for the laird to come down from Castle Kisimul—the stone fortress in the center of the bay. The black castle, as it was known, had been the ancestral seat of their clan for generations. Surrounded by water, Kisimul was only accessible by ship, part of what made it such an impenetrable fortress. It was barely visible in the darkness, and as they waited, an eerie hush fell across the crowd. The bitter smell of ash and salt mingled in the air around them as Valan turned to see what had captured their attention. On the water, he made out a tiny rowboat coming toward them. The oars cast ripples in the moon’s reflection and shattered the illusion on the sea of glass. Laird MacNeil stood on the bow while his guards rowed them across the bay to the funeral gathering. The time for conversation ended. When the boat arrived on the rocky coast, Laird Thomas MacNeil stepped out with his hands clasped in front of him and came to join them at the fire.

Behind him stood his daughter, Claire—a stunning beauty who rarely left the castle. Moonlight reflected off her alabaster skin, and she moved so gracefully it appeared the lady was floating off the ground. Her hair was pinned back into a braid on the crown of her head, and she wore a fur lined cloak the same color as her raven tresses. She followed close behind her father and bowed her head respectfully. The laird held a commanding presence that demanded respect wherever he went, it was impossible not to feel the weight of his company. His black hair was streaked with silver and topped with a cap on back of his head. The dark gray coat he wore came almost to his knees, and bore a silver pin on the right lapel. He gazed out across the crowd and addressed them, saying, “Today is a sad day fer our clan. We lay tae rest one of our own, one of our finest seamen. Callum died in the line of duty, serving our people and bringing home supplies tae enrich our lands.

We all knew him. Many of ye sailed with him throughout the years. His loss will be felt throughout our community fer years tae come. ’Tis right that we send him tae the next life with dignity and respect.” Turning to Siobhan and her children, he said, “Good lady, we feel yer pain. Ken that ye will nae be left wanting. Ye will always have a place among us. We are more than seamen; we are the people of the Barra and we take care of our own.” A murmur of appreciation rose up throughout the crowd, and she nodded toward him gratefully. “Thank ye, my laird.

” Laird MacNeil nodded stiffly and raised his hand to silence them. “I ken the other reason we are here is tae delegate a new captain. ’Tis something I’ve thought long and hard about. I’ve been in counsel fer most of the day with my advisors. There were many considered fer the job, but after much discussion it became clear that one name stood out above the rest. There was one I ken I could trust tae lead our men into battle. One I could proudly call my captain. When one captain falls, another rises. The time has come fer him tae take his place as a captain of one of my vessels.” Valan glanced across the sea of faces as he listened to the laird speak.

He was in rapt attention just like the rest of them, waiting to hear what the laird would say. He noticed the laird’s daughter glance in his direction with a little smile. “Valan,” the laird announced. His voice echoed through the crowd and Valan glanced up at the laird in shock. Ailsa gasped and reached out to take his hand. A low murmur rumbled through the crowd. Confused, Valan spoke up, saying, “Aye, my laird?” Laird MacNeil smiled. “That is my decision. Valan MacNeil, ye will be the man tae captain one of my ships.” He and the laird stared at one another across the flames as the people around him whispered.

The fire hissed and crackled on the wooden pyre, casting a menacing shadow across the laird’s face. There were so many emotions going through him Valan didn’t know what to think. Of all the things he expected to happen that night, being appointed a captain was not one of them. “Ye want me as captain?” he asked in disbelief. “Aye. That is what I said. Dae ye accept?” Valan stuttered in response, still trying to collect his thoughts as everyone stared at him. He recognized Kent’s displeasure instantly but didn’t let that stop him. “A-aye, yer lairdship. ’Twould be an honor.

” Laird MacNeil smiled with approval, though it did not reach his eyes, and then turned his attention back toward the crowd. “I trust there are nae objections?” “He’s a child,” one of the seamen grumbled. “Nae more than five and twenty.” A few others nodded in agreement. “Ye want us tae follow a wee lad?” The laird frowned. “He may be young, but Valan has proven himself throughout the years. He’s one of my greatest seamen, and the most skilled with a sword by far. I challenge any one of ye tae defeat him in a duel.” “He’s right,” Alistair piped up from across the fires. “And nae younger than Graeme when he became a captain.

I sailed with Valan fer years and would be honored tae serve him. He may be young, but he has a good head on his shoulders.” “And are ye gonna be the one tae sail with him?” one of the men shot back. “The one who pays the cost fer his bad decision?” Alistair shrugged. “If that is my laird’s wish, then so be it. I believe in him, and so should ye.” Out of the corner of his eyes, Valan noticed Graeme beaming at him with pride. The seaman who originally complained spoke up again, saying, “I still dinnae like it. It should go tae a man with more experience.” “Ye dinnae have tae like it,” another snapped.

“Valan is the laird’s decision, and that is final. Will ye respect the laird’s command, or will we have tae fight?” The man scowled at them, placing his hand on the hilt of his blade and then storming off toward the village. Tension within the crowd was palpable, and Valan could sense his mother’s fear. She clasped his hand tightly, and he heard an audible shift to her breathing. Valan placed his hand on top of hers as a means of comfort, but his eyes never left the laird. Laird MacNeil turned to Siobhan and said, “Lady, I would ask fer yer husband’s signet ring.” She nodded, approaching the laird with an outstretched hand. In her palm was a silver ring with the crest of Clan MacNeil. Valan could not remember how the custom began, but the four rings of the Barra captains were a symbol of authority. It was a visible representation of their place in the community and gave them the right to command a ship.

He stared at the ring as it passed from Siobhan to the laird, and felt his chest grow tight. Laird MacNeil gestured for Valan to come forward, still fixing him with a cold, brown stare. Valan swallowed hard as he stood up from his seat and came toward him from across the circle. His heart pounded in his chest and he glanced to Lady Claire uncertainly. When he reached the laird, Valan held out his hand in a cupping motion. Laird MacNeil placed the signet ring in the center of Valan’s palm and clasped his hands together. Valan stared at his hand agape, still in disbelief that this was really happening, and read the words inscribed into the band. Around the sigil read the clan motto: Buaidhi no bas—conquer or die. A respectful clap came from those remaining on the beach and the laird embraced him stiffly. The nobleman pulled him close and whispered so no one else could hear, “I trust this means there is nae more bad blood between us.

” Valan grit his teeth as the laird released him and nodded. “Of course.” Laird MacNeil nodded approvingly, his smile not quite genuine, but enough to be believable. “What happened tae yer brother is unfortunate. I hope this will mend the feelings between us. Ye have a bright future.” Valan nodded again. As the laird turned away from him, Valan looked to Claire accusingly. She grinned at him from across the crowd with a twinkle in her eye. There was no doubt in his mind that she had something to do with this appointment.

The laird would not have chosen him on his own; yet somehow she convinced him. He wanted to ask her, so he could find out what really happened, but Valan and his mother were quickly caught up in the onslaught of congratulations. Well-wishers came from all around the pyre and murmured their congratulations, which he accepted in daze. Elspeth and Graeme made their way over to him with open arms, saying, “Congratulations! Valan, I cannae believe it!” He accepted Elspeth’s hug and patted her gently on the arm. “Thank ye, lass. I’m still in shock.” Graeme came up behind her, his eyes dark and arms folded across his chest. “Congratulations, my friend. Though I am grieved that I must find another seaman fer my ship. The honor of captain could nae have gone tae a more deserving man.

” “Thank ye, Graeme. Yer words mean a great deal.” Ailsa approached them through the crowd and looked up at him with teary eyes. “Oh, my son… what has he done tae ye?” Valan felt a twinge of guilt when he saw her, not realizing until that moment it would cause her such distress. He sighed and placed his hand on Ailsa’s shoulder, saying, “It will be fine, Mam. I promise, all is well.” They watched Laird MacNeil and his daughter mingling with the villagers before climbing back onto his ship. Graeme gave him a congratulatory slap on the back and said, “What are moping fer? Ye should celebrate! Come and have a drink with me. Bess will be overjoyed.” “I wish that I could,” Valan responded.

“But there are more pressing matters at hand. Perhaps tomorrow after the ceremony?” The captain nodded in understanding and put his arm around Elspeth’s shoulder. “Aye. See ye at the castle.”

.

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