f he lived to be a hundred years old, Ualan McCallum would always remember that night. But right then, in the fug of the tavern, with the Highland rain pelting down, he had no idea. Beside him, his cousin looked into his lovelorn face and laughed. “Och! An’ this is what happens when ye trust a woman, did I nae say!” Ualan leaned his head against the window of the Sheep’s Heid Tavern and looked out to the windswept glen. Above his head, a portrait of Queen Mary stared down, disapproving of the revelers on that rain-sodden Sunday night. It was supposed to be springtime, but from up here on the moor, it didn’t look – or feel like it. Slowly, Ualan took a sip from his drink and sighed. Try as he might, the deep gnawing in his heart and the grumble from his belly would not be silenced. The latter might have owed to the whisky Keith kept pouring for him. But no matter how much he drank, it couldn’t erase his heart. Although Ualan didn’t look lovelorn, in his fine linen clothes, he was every inch the laird’s heir; a flowing léine of saffron offset his long rusty red hair to good effect. But deep inside, there was something missing. At twenty-six, he was well built and handsome; his boyish youth still visible in his freckles and twinkling brown eyes. Tonight, they were misty and sad. Ualan’s wide eyes panned the room as if looking for someone there.
But it was no use. She was not there. She had never been, not really. Ualan’s hands went down to his pouch, fastened securely into his belt, and felt the large, heavy shape of the McLaughlin brooch. At least it was still there. Without looking, Ualan’s fingers felt for the four large rubies and six sapphires lining the edges of the trinket. It was the most precious jewel in the whole of the clan, the highest prize anyone could wear—and yet, both it and he had been roundly rejected. Ualan fastened the gleaming jewel back down into his pouch, vowing never again to offer either it, or his heart, to a woman as long as he lived. “Och, laddie, it could have been worse!” opined Keith, seeing him open his pouch and study the brooch. “She could have kept the jewel an’ left ye!” Ualan just shrugged.
Right then, he wouldn’t have cared much if she did. But Keith just laughed, pouring them another dram, and continued chattering. “It just goes to prove, as I said, that ye cannae trust a woman, lad,” said Keith. “An’ ye should ken!” “Hum,” said Ualan, unable to argue with that. “But all the same, let us speak no more of it now, Keith,” he added, watching as the rain pounded harder past the window. “It’s nae for the whole world to hear!” “Well, right ye are, an on that note, there’ll be no mair talk of women,” Keith McCallum said, seeing the discomfort in his cousin’s eyes and quickly changing tack. “So come, let’s toast to the fine laird that ye’ll surely be!” “Och…one day…a long time off!” Ualan reminded him. “But aye, I do happen to have, as ye ken, some ambitious plans for the clan McCallum!” “Go on, then, let’s hear them. Let the clan in on what ye have planned for them!” grinned Keith. His flushed cheeks betrayed the number of drams he had already enjoyed that evening.
But in the haze of drink, Ualan had quite forgotten what he was about to say. “What happened to Ian again?” he asked in confusion. Ian was Ualan’s best friend. “Ye did ask him, didn’t ye…?” “Aye,” said Keith. “Something came up at the last minute, I think. Anyhow, I’m more interested in yer plans for the keep… so put us poor wretches out of oor misery. Sae, laddie…what are yer plans?” Keith said jovially, downing another quaich. Ualan watched as his cousin’s pale eyes scanned the barroom quickly before turning back to him. “So, what’s it to be, cousin?” Keith said, his eyes eventually connecting with a young woman at the back of the room. “Eh?” said Ualan.
Following his cousin’s gaze, he also turned to look at her. Her platinum blonde mane was vaguely familiar from somewhere, but at the mere sight of Keith, she blushed and stuck her head down. Next, Keith turned to the elderly landlord, his sharp blue eyes reaching into Ualan’s face. “So, ye going to let them ken what dastardly plans ye have afoot for yer poor people?” Keith asked again. Now the pair of them were staring at him, as well as most of the tavern regulars from across the room. Even the eyes of the wueen seemed to bore into him, as if anxious to hear what he had to say. “Och, it’ll nae be anythin’ like that!” Ualan said, his memory returning as a flush of whisky came upon his cheeks. “But there’s so much opportunity out there, ye ken, to really connect wi’ folk an’ make this clan great!” “Ye sayin’ it’s nae so great now, cousin?” asked Ualan slyly, with a wink to the landlord. “Nae, nae, nae!” Ualan said, perhaps a little too loudly—without warning, there was now a drum banging inside his head. For a moment, Ualan paused, frowning.
That was strange—it seemed he had only taken a few sips, and yet he was already dizzy. Ualan quickly cast off the thick mantle fastened loosely around his waist as his face burned, and his core temperature rose abruptly. Although cold when he had first come in, the single malt had quickly woven its magic, starting at his lips and reaching into the pit of his belly at speed. Right then, Ualan wanted nothing more than to stay there, lost in a haze of whisky, but he knew it wouldn’t help for long. There was one place the firewater would never reach, and that was the cavern of his heart, still aching with the hurt that had been done. “The clan’s braw, but I dinnae, it could be made bigger,” he asserted, his thick fingers fastening tightly around the wooden quaich. Ualan frowned; he didn’t remember it being refilled. Then he looked around to see literally everyone in the room watching him. Never mind; he took a deep sip of the single malt. The fug in his head spread down into his lower limbs, rendering them comfortably numb.
“Like what?” Keith asked him. “Och, I dinnae, just a wee idea,” started Ualan, noticing the watchful faces. But then, another glug of whisky hit him, and he threw caution to the wind. “Like, ye ken, that instead of fighting each other, we could try an’ unite the distant clans together, under one, an’ really be able to reach out an’ do something great!” he continued, warming to his theme. “What, ye mean like conquer the neighbors an’ rule over them?” Keith said, his serious face pressed close against his hand and staring. From behind him, Ualan was still vaguely aware of the others, listening in, but at that moment, he was too tired to care. It had been a long day, with a hard ride and a heavy list of filial duties to attend to. Add that to the turmoil of everything that had happened at the McIver keep, and Ualan’s heart beat extra hard. “Nae, nae, nae, I dinnae mean like that!” he said. “Yer nae listening.
I mean we should unite, not fight!” he asserted. “Like Mairi’s clan…tried to…!” Keith chuckled, casting his dark blond hair over his shoulders and laughing with the men behind. “Och, an’ there, ladies an’ gentlemen, we have it. Mairi! I might have kent there would be a woman behind it somewhere!” He slapped Ualan good-naturedly around the shoulders, continuing to smile. “I can tell ye right now, ye never listen to anything a woman ever tells ye, did I nae say that from the start?” Keith said. He was still smiling, but his eyes connected more seriously with Ualan’s. “An’ wasnae I right?” he added softly. Ualan rubbed the side of his head as he felt his cheeks flush even more with the heat of the whisky. “Aye,” said Ualan dejectedly. “But the plan’s still a good one! I’ll extend the lands beyond the glen side, an’ we can have access to the forests to the west.
I’ll build new homes for all of the clan, an’ then…” Just in speaking about it, Ualan’s spirits had picked up. Then again, that might have had something to do with the generous splash of whisky Keith was pouring for him again. But almost in the same instance, Ualan felt himself crash back down again. “An’ by then I’ll be the most powerful laird in the land, an’ Mairi will be sorry she went an’ married an Englishman!” he said, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice. “Och, hush, we’ll find a wee strumpet for ye to warm yer bed afore the night’s oot!” replied Keith. He looked over to the slight blonde woman in the crowd, who ducked her head. “Ye just need one or two more wee drams inside ye, an’…steady, laddie!” Then, wham! Without warning, Ualan’s legs gave way, and in an instant, he was down on the muddied floor, languishing in dirt. “Och, dinnae fash,” muttered Ualan, pulling himself up clumsily. But he only succeeded in knocking his head on the table leg. For a few minutes, the whole world swam around him.
Although it wasn’t exactly crowded on that damp Sunday evening, there were more than enough people watching the McCallum clan heir to very quickly make him want to sober up. “Here,” said Keith, smiling. He offered his cousin a hand up. But in his inebriated state, Ualan was having none of it. “Och, it’s nothing!” announced Ualan, finally pulling himself up from the floor and dusting himself down. With effort, he climbed back on top of the tall barstool – quite an accomplishment at the best of times – but the room still rotated with his every move. Through his haze, he wondered how he had he even got into such a state after only a few wee drams. But his thoughts were rudely interrupted by Keith slapping him heartily about the shoulder. “What say we have a couple more here an’ then head up to the King’s Arms in town? There’s going to be a cracking ceilidh there later!” Ualan noticed Keith’s eyes going across the dull room, to the slight blonde woman at the back. But every time he looked, she dropped her head back down.
Yet when Keith wasn’t looking, she glanced up at Ualan coyly. Even from the distance, Ualan could sense something in her, as if she was trying to connect with him. For a minute, Ualan paused, wondering where he knew her from, but the whisky fog in his brain blanked out her name. Eventually, though he did remember her as a maid at the keep. When Keith noticed, he laughed out loud. “So, ye’ve got yer eye on another lassie! Well, that’s the way to mend a broken heart!” he guffawed, thumping Ualan on the back with a heavy slap. “I cannae say I blame ye, I would have that one myself, but since it’s ye, I’ll let ye have her!” “Och, nae!” protested Ualan, taken aback. “An’ I’m nae broken-hearted,” he lied. This just made Keith laugh all the more. He motioned to the landlord to refill their quaich cups even faster.
As the old grey man poured their drinks, Ualan could sense an urgency in the maid’s face. Oblivious, Keith carried on. “Och, ye are; Mairi this, Mairi that. Well, laddie, Mairi is gone now, but that lassie yonder is very much there, an’ hoo! Lassie!” Keith stood up, suddenly, shaking the unstable barstool and sending it flying across the floor. The ancient landlord refilling their drinks had to duck fast as it almost hit him in the shin. Quickly, Ualan apologized and glared at his cousin, who was now beckoning to the maid to come forwards. “Nae, dinnae,” muttered Ualan, embarrassed. He might have been slightly drunk, but he could see well enough the fear palpable on the maid’s face. “Maybe she just wants to be left alone,” he reasoned, taking Keith by the elbow and motioning him to sit down. But Keith seemed very keen.
“Och, Ualan, if that’s so, then why does she keep looking at ye? She seems awfu’ keen. Come on, what harm can a few drinks do?” Ualan groaned; he knew all too well what Keith’s “few drinks” meant. Usually lots of fighting and inappropriate women; not to mention a banging headache and quite often not waking up in the right bed – if any bed – the next morning. Briefly, he wondered again where his friend Ian had got to tonight. Either way, he didn’t feel up for an unmitigated night on the town. “Nae, really, Keith, I think I’ll just go home,” Ualan began, but Keith shook his head hard. “Nae, nae on my watch, cousin; ye’ve got a broken heart an’ it’s my job to do something about it. Starting with this quaich! McTavish!” he yelled, calling to the landlord to come back again with the whisky. Ualan found himself relax back into his seat. He knew better than to challenge Keith when he got an idea in his head.
And if there was one thing, he was serious about, it was merrymaking. “Ye only live once, Ualan, so better make it a good one!” Keith said, with a smile to the blonde wench who was starting to come through the crowd. “I’ll make ye enjoy yersel’ whether ye like it or nae!” he joked. Ualan was fond of his cousin, and grudgingly had to admit he knew how to rouse his spirits when he was down. So, despite everything, he found himself nodding along as he settled back into his stool. “Och, well, maybe just a wee dram or two,” agreed Ualan as the drinks were poured. “An’ I’ll tell ye all about the grand farmhouse I’m going to build out there by the moors…” “Och, the farm; aye, that’d be braw. In fact, why doesnae Uncle Roderick do something like that noo?” enquired Keith, with a quick look to Ualan. “Och, I dinnae, something about it not being beneficial. But I am sure it could be made to work,” said Ualan, warming to his theme.
“Tis a pity ye cannae persuade him that it’d be grand for the clan,” agreed Keith. “It sure is a shame….” His voice trailed off as the young blonde woman who had been watching them from the back of the bar came nervously forward. “Aye, t’is a pity Father willnae listen, but ye ken what he’s like when his mind is made up about something,” said Ualan sadly, but his voice was without rancor. “Like for ages now, I’ve been trying to persuade him to build a new keep, but he willnae have it!” One or two eyes around the bar cast curiously over to them as he said that. Realizing the attention, he was causing, Ualan quickly dropped his voice. It wouldn’t do for a laird’s son to be heard publicly criticizing the laird, and anyway, they were only pipe dreams. Then, from behind him, a voice interrupted their conversation. “Sorry to bother ye, sir, but there is message from yer father, the laird—yer to come at once!