Stealing her Highland Throne – Ava McArthur

It was never meant to be this way. Ainsly McLallen looked devastated as she gazed out at the world before her. The beautiful fields of her home had been trampled. The keep that stood nestled in the comforting grip of the valley was being invaded. Her long red hair was tied back into a tight ponytail. It swung like a pendulum as she twisted her head, taking in a panoramic view of the battlefield. Her green eyes were stricken with grief and swam with tears. She had only seen twenty-four summers, and yet she had witnessed enough sorrow to last a lifetime. Her soul was old and wretched, and her heart had long been beaten into submission by the rigors of life. Her pale face was the shade of ice as tension knotted in her stomach. For a moment, she was paralyzed as she watched everything unfold before her. It felt as though it would happen whether she did anything or not. Scowling, her grip tightened on the hilt of her sword as she hated to feel this powerless. It was the same feeling she had had four years earlier when her father had died. Then, she had watched him wither away until there was only a shadow left, and there had been nothing she was able to do about it.

Since then, she had tried to lead the clan as he would have led it: nobly and with honor. But now it was being torn apart before her eyes. The rogue clan had come from nowhere. She didn’t recognize any of them and had no idea why they had chosen to attack her small keep. She had always lived a humble life and never sought conflict with anyone if it wasn’t necessary. Perhaps that was why they were attacking; she had been warned that people would see her as an easy target because she was a woman. It wasn’t fair, but it was true. Well, she would show them just what a woman was capable of. She wore leather armor and thick boots. Her cheeks burned with the same fire that was alight in her heart.

Ainsly fought for her father and her clan, for all those she had lost already, and for those she was losing now. Her heart broke, and her eyes burned with tears as she looked around and saw so many dead already—people who had served by her side, boys she had watched grow into men. She cursed and spat on the ground as she strode forward, ready to enter the chaotic fray of battle. The air was hot, and it seemed to simmer. Pain throbbed behind her eyes. Clashes of steel ran out in the air like the song of a maiden. Brutish men clattered together and wrestled. They were covered in mud and blood, and at a cursory glance, it was difficult to tell how many of her men had fallen, but even one was too many. Ainsly pressed her lips together and curled her fingers even more tightly around her sword. It gleamed as it caught the sunlight that poured down from the open sky.

Her thoughts turned to her father and all the things he had told her on his death bed when she had clasped his hand and watched him leave this life to pass into the next. “Ye must be strong, Ainsly. I know ye hae always been strong, but ye must be stronger. Others are nae gaeing tae know what ye’re capable of. They’re gaeing tae underestimate ye, and ye must use this tae yer advantage. The world haes never been fair tae women, and they will see a clan led by a woman and think ye are weak. Ye cannae let them. Ye cannae lose all I hae built. I wish…I wish I haed given ye a brother sae that ye could hae someone standing by yer side. I wish I haed done sae many things…I’m sorry, lass.

I’m sorry for failing ye.” Tears fell from her eyes as Ainsly tried to tell him that he hadn’t failed her at all, but it seemed as though Laird McLallen was convinced of the truth and wouldn’t accept anything else. His hand had slipped away from hers as he took his final breath. He was covered in a sea of long red hair as Ainsly collapsed over him and shuddered with deep, heart-wrenching sobs. Ainsly was left as the last of her family, the last of her name. It was only she who could lead the clan. And now she was seeing it fall apart before her eyes. Wooden shields splintered under the brute force of the attack. Cries of pain sharper than any she had ever known before rang out as men were slammed to the ground. This land was a land of peace, yet now it had been turned into something ugly and twisted.

The way of the Highlands had found her despite her best efforts to resist. War was a brutal and ugly thing. Ainsly had tried her best to keep her clan protected from it, but it seemed as though war was inevitable. The ground was stained with blood. Guts spilled out from her brave warriors. She glanced back towards the thick walls of the keep and thought about all the people huddled together there for safety and warmth, frightened out of their minds at the thought of losing their home. Ainsly saw one of her men being attacked by two enemies. They were big men, huge and mean with ugly scars on their faces. Their swords slashed down, and it was all her warrior could do to deflect the blows, but they were so strong that he staggered back and lost his balance. She was ashamed to say that she didn’t know the man’s name, for his face was unrecognizable as blood poured down the side of his face.

The grip on his sword faltered, his mouth opened, and his eyes were wide with shock. He shook his head as though they were going to be convinced by this plea for mercy. The two swords were lifted high above the enemies’ heads and then brought down. Ainsly lunged forward and crouched down, lifting the sword horizontally above her head. As the two swords came down, it sounded like a blacksmith hammering at a forge. Ainsly felt the stinging pain reverberate through her arms. She screamed as she pushed back, her appearance stunning the men. “What, hae ye never fought a lass before?” she spat as she flashed her sword at them. She cut one man’s neck. He dropped his sword as he clutched his throat and gurgled.

Thick dark blood poured down his neck as the life drained from him. The other snarled and attacked. Ainsly twisted around and deflected the blow. She was as agile as a cat and lowered herself, slashing at the man’s legs. She cut gashes into both of his calf muscles, and he sank to his knees. With two hands on the sword, she drove the weapon down into the man’s back between his shoulder blades. The tip came out the other side. When she drew back the sword, a river of blood came with it as he fell face-first into the mud, but he was already dead, so he didn’t have to taste it. “Come on, get up! The keep is nae lost yet!” Ainsly called down to the fallen warrior. He nodded and pushed himself up, scrambling to get his sword.

She twisted around and looked for the next enemy, moving like a demon. Her red ponytail swung behind her, and she moved so fast it looked like the flame of a dragon’s tail. She swiped her sword left and right where she could, trying to help her men who were being overwhelmed by these powerful and mighty warriors. They were all packed with muscle and heavyset. She assumed them to be barbarians from the way they were dressed. They certainly had black hearts to assault a keep like this. Amid the chaos, she tried to see the opposing commander, but her vision was clouded by a sea of bodies. They seemed to be everywhere, like rats swarming over sacks of food. Her muscles ached from swinging her sword, and sweat poured down the side of her face and underneath her clothes. Every step took her farther from the keep.

She glanced back and saw one enemy rushing towards it. Ainsly snarled and sprinted back, her feet thudding on the ground. She screamed to get the man’s attention. He turned, and his lip curled as he swung his sword. Ainsly was moving so fast that she could not stop easily. As it came slashing through the air, she threw herself to the ground and rolled by his feet. He stomped on the ground, trying to crush her head. She managed to evade his heavy boots. Her stomach turned as she saw entrails hanging off the soles of his boots. She pressed her hands to the ground and kicked up with her legs, angling her body to kick him.

Her lithe leg hit him in the chest and gave her an opportunity to rise to her feet. As she did so, her enemy had regained his balance and struck as soon as she was upright. Twisting her body, Ainsly managed to evade the blow and thrust her sword forward, catching his shoulder. He growled in pain, but it only seemed to drive him on. She danced around him, searching for an opening, and finally, she found one. As he lifted his arm to strike, she lunged forward and thrust it into the side of his body, dragging it down to open up his guts. He looked down in horror at what she had done to him, and then keeled over. Ainsly gasped for breath as she turned in fear that others would be storming the keep. Her heart sank as she saw her men retreating. Some of them were carrying others.

Most of them were limping. “What are ye daeing? Stand and fight!” she cried. Calum came to her. Blood streaked his arm, and his clothes were torn to shreds. His eyes were wild with panic; he clutched her arm with whatever strength he had left. “There’s nae use, Ainsly. They’re tae strong. We…we’ve done all we can. We hae tae retreat tae the keep. If we dinnae, we’ll all die.

” Calum had advised her on so many matters since her father’s death. She trusted him perhaps more than any man that had ever lived, but it was so hard to trust him in this matter. Yet what choice did she have? She could order them to fight, but then they would just spill their blood over the ground. There would be nobody left to protect those left in the keep. With a heavy heart, Ainsly nodded. “Retreat!” she cried, and brandished her sword, pointing it towards the keep. The men shuffled away just as the dark shadow of the enemy came up behind them, as inexorable as death itself. Ainsly dared not look behind her as she didn’t want to think of the fate that awaited them, or the men she had to leave on the battlefield. Her only hope now was that the walls and doors of the keep held strong, although she had a feeling that it was only a matter of time before they gave way. As she held the doors open and ushered her wounded men through, she spared a thought for her father.

I’m sorry I failed ye Da. Perhaps a son would hae been able tae hold the keep. As the last of her men came through the doors, she closed them, with the help of Calum, and slid a heavy wooden beam behind him. Then, she turned into the keep’s shadowed halls and strode back towards her throne room, awaiting the enemy in there. If they wanted the throne then they were going to have to take it from her directly.

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