Stealing the Highlander’s Heart – Fiona Faris

A fine mist settled across the glen. The hills were alive with the green of summer. All was quiet in the early hours of the morning as the occupants of Blair Castle, positioned at the base of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, came to life. The birds greeted the coming of the sun with song as a cockerel crowed in the distance. The air was cool and laden with the promise of a beautiful day. A pair of waterfowl swam companionably along the River Blair, peacefully content in their lives ‒ until the sound of clanging swords split the silence. “Ye’ll nae be defeatin’ me this day, brother!” Malcolm Murray declared as he faced off to spar with his adopted older brother Finlay. “An’ who is goin’ to be defeatin’ me? ‘Twill nae be ye!” Finlay replied, laughing at the younger man’s hubris. “I have many more stone than ye.” “Size isna everthin’,” Malcolm informed him. “A strong heart an’ clear mind wins the day as oft as nae.” “Dinna be forgetin’ experience. With age comes wisdom, ye ken,” Finlay advised as they circled each other, swords in hand. “Oh, aye, ye be as auld as the mountains yon,” Malcolm jested gesturing towards the Cairngorms behind them. “Och, ye wee bampot.

I’ll show ye auld,” Finlay replied and advanced to attack, bringing his sword down upon Malcolm’s head. Malcolm just barely managed to move out of the way in time, thrusting his sword up to ward off the attack. “Ye may be stronger, but I am faster,” Malcolm taunted. His plan was to distract Finlay with brotherly banter in hopes of throwing him off balance. Finlay had been winning these bouts since they were children and Malcolm was determined that today would be different. Malcolm was a fine swordsman in his own right and had accrued many victories among his father’s men in the sparring yard over the years. However, Finlay was correct about being stronger and more experienced. “Aye, ye flit about as if ye were a will-o’-the-wisp,” Finlay agreed, advancing once more, “but flesh and blood ye are and ‘twill be yer blood my sword feasts upon this day.” Finlay’s sword nicked Malcolm’s cheek. “Och!” he proclaimed, swiping at the offending mark.

Charging at Finlay, he found himself flat upon his back, a sword to his throat. “A strong heart ye have, brother, but a clear mind ye have nae,” Finlay pointed out, moving his sword and offering a hand to assist Malcolm to his feet. Laughing, Malcolm accepted the hand. “Aye, I set out tae distract ye, but ‘twas I that fell tae my own pride.” “Ye ken strategy well enough,” Finlay agreed, “but it ne’er pays tae underestimate yer opponent. Ye are nae the only thinkin’ man in the clans.” Finlay grinned, teasing Malcolm. “Again?” Malcolm requested, setting his stance for another bout. “Aye,” Finlay acquiesced and the pair of them faced off once more. Malcolm attempted to clear his mind and concentrate on his opponent’s intentions.

This time he did not banter about hoping to distract his adversary, instead he endeavored to predict Finlay’s every move by reading the look in his eyes and his body language. The two continued to spar in silence with nothing but the clash of metal and masculine grunts of exertion to break the quiet. Malcolm backed Finlay farther and farther from the yard as he pushed ever forward, determined to win the match. The intensity of Malcolm’s onslaught had caused Finlay to need to concentrate more on what was in front of him and less on what was behind him. A side swipe of Malcolm’s sword made Finlay twist sideways in order to escape his blade. The misstep caused him to lose his balance, whereupon he rolled down an embankment and landed arse first in the River Blair. Finlay came up sputtering, blonde hair streaming rivulets of water down his body, but his steely glare of frustration was quickly replaced by laughter at his own misfortune. Malcolm walked down the bank and offered him a hand, pulling him out of the cold water. Finlay thumped Malcolm on the back in congratulations for his well-earned victory. “Ye did well,” he praised.

Malcolm’s name being yelled from the castle cut through the air, drawing both men up short. Malcolm turned to see his mother, Freya, running toward them, her blonde hair and arisaid streaming behind her as she called for Malcolm and Finlay to come quickly. “Yer faither has collapsed and I cannae rouse him!” Her words and the fear in her blue eyes caused Malcolm to race for the castle with Finlay fast on his heels. They burst through the doors, following Freya, and found Andrew Murray unconscious upon the floor of the great hall. The mounted heads of hunted stags stared down at the laird from the walls as if he were a fallen comrade. “Faither!” Malcolm exclaimed as he took in the ashen color of Andrew’s skin beneath his sweat drenched grey locks. Turning to his mother, he asked, “What happened?” “I dinnae ken. One moment he is standin’ there talkin’ and the next he is on the floor,” Freya stated, wringing her hands in worry. “Help me get him tae bed,” Malcolm requested. Malcolm and Finlay each grabbed a side of Andrew’s body and moved to carry him to the laird’s bedchamber.

They carefully navigated the hallways and doorways so as not to cause him further harm, then deposited him under the blankets of the Murray tartan clad master bed. His ashen features deepened into a deathly pale against the dark green and blue of the plaid. Freya choked back a sob at the sight. Malcolm wrapped his arms around his mother to offer her some comfort. His father looked as if death were but a mere breath away. Malcolm could not countenance a world in which his father did not exist. “I will send tae the village for a healer,” he promised as he squeezed her shoulders before left the room. He found nearly every occupant and servant of the castle waiting in the hall, worried looks upon their faces. “Fergus,” Malcolm called out over their heads. “Aye,” his father’s trusted man replied.

“Go and fetch the healer,” Malcolm commanded. “And be quick about it.” “Aye,” Fergus answered and took off running for the stables. “The rest o’ ye, return tae yer duties. I give ye my word that just as soon as there is news, I will share it with ye,” Malcolm promised. Finlay joined him in the hall as everyone dispersed. “I will go and inform yer sisters,” he offered. “Ye should stay with yer maither.” “Aye,” Malcolm agreed and reentered the room to sit beside his father’s motionless body. Andrew’s breathing was shallow and uneven.

Malcolm prayed that the healer would arrive in time. “Help me tae remove his breacan-an-feileadh,” Freya requested as she pulled at the longbelted plaid. Malcolm assisted his mother in removing Andrew’s plaid, then pulled the blankets back up to his father’s chest. His skin was cool to the touch. Malcolm laid his father’s plaid on top of the other blankets and moved to stoke the room’s fire in an attempt to warm him. “He’s as cold as ice,” Malcolm informed his mother. “I will go an’ get another pladger from my bed and bring it to him.” “There are more blankets in the trunk at the foot o’ the bed,” Freya answered, gesturing towards the hinged wooden box. Malcolm moved to retrieve the desired items. “He was just talkin’, ye say?” he asked.

“Aye, we were discussin’ plans for the comin’ gatherin’ when he went silent, turned that ghastly grey color an’ fell tae the floor,” Freya explained. “I dinnae ken what sort of malady could have caused such a thing,” Malcolm noted. “Nor I,” Freya agreed. Malcolm spread the extra blankets over his father not knowing what else to do. “Finlay has gone tae tell the lasses,” he informed her. “We saw them headed for the river to bathe while we were sparring.” Looking down at Andrew’s face, his mother’s features grew cloudy with remembrance. “Yer father loved watchin’ ye spar when ye were but a wee bairn. Nae sooner could ye walk and Finlay had ye out in the yard with a wooden sword teachin’ ye the ways o’ men. He was nae but a lad himself at the time.

” Freya smiled at the memory as a tear slipped unbidden down her cheek. “Ye were brothers from the first moment he laid eyes on ye.” “Aye,” Malcolm agreed coming around to sit with her upon the edge of the bed. “Faither would have been proud today.” “Oh, aye?” Freya inquired with a raised brow. “I won,” Malcolm answered, his voice devoid of any excitement. The pride he had felt at the accomplishment now seemed of little importance when faced with the possible demise of his father. “Andrew would have been proud indeed,” Freya agreed, tenderly caressing her husband’s face. A cacophony of noise from the hallway warned of his sisters’ approach. Finlay entered the room first.

“How is he?” he asked concerned. “There has been nae change as o’ yet,” Freya answered. Malcolm’s sisters burst into the room. The youngest two were crying while the elder two demanded to know what had happened. “Hold yer wheesht. Dinnae fash yerself,” Malcolm ordered, wrapping his arms around the two youngest. “Yer haverin’ will dae nae but cause him to fret an’ he disnae need it.” The eldest of his sisters, Mary, stepped forward and walked over to hold their mother’s hand. “Is there anythin’ I can get ye, Maither? Tea?” “Nae for me, but perhaps for the wee lasses,” Freya answered, giving her daughter’s hand an affectionate squeeze. “Aye,” Mary agreed and herded the two youngest sisters from the room.

“I will return once I have them settled.” Quiet once more fell upon the room as its occupants watched and prayed over their laird. When the healer arrived, everyone but Freya exited the bedchamber to give him space to work. Mary returned from tending their sisters and slid her hand into Malcolm’s as he stood leaning against the hall wall. He squeezed it affectionately and held it as they nervously awaited answers. It felt like an eternity before the bedroom door opened once more. Freya stepped out and embraced her eldest children. “He is awake and wishes tae speak with ye, Malcolm,” she informed him, releasing him to do as bid. Malcolm nodded and turned to enter his parent’s bedchamber. “Faither?” he asked as he approached the bed.

“Malcolm, my son.” Andrew’s voice was weak and unsteady. Malcolm had never heard it thus and felt his heart break twice over at the sound. “Maither said ye wished tae speak with me?” “Aye,” Andrew confirmed. “As ye can see I am alive, but the good healer tells me he is nae sure how long I will manage tae stay that way.” “Faither, nae,” Malcolm protested. “Death is but a part o’ life, my son,” Andrew admonished him. “With me bound tae this bed, much o’ the responsibility o’ laird will fall tae ye.” “Nae,” Malcolm protested once more. “I will remain laird while I live, but soon it will fall tae ye, my son.

Ye must prepare yerself for the inevitable,” Andrew replied. “For now I will need ye to be my legs, eyes, and ears outside o’ this room. I need yer help tae care for our people.” “I will always help ye tae care for our people, Faither, but ye will live for a verra long time yet,” Malcolm answered, praying his words were true. Andrew patted his son’s hand. “’Tis enough for now. Send yer maither back in tae me.” “Aye, Faither,” Malcolm answered. Squeezing Andrew’s hand, he left the room. “How is he?” Mary met him at the door.

.

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