Highlander’s False Betrothal by Alisa Adams
Aodh dragged the thick leather sleeve of his armor across his forehead, mopping the sweat and blood from his brow. He was breathing heavily and squinting as he surveyed the battlefield—or rather, what had been a battlefield until an hour ago.
Now it was a grim monument to the carnage that had raged across the valley.
The grass was slick with gore. The air hung heavy, still, and silent, except for the occasional cry of a wounded soldier calling out for the care of a healer, or worse, receiving such care in the form of limbs that had to be sawed off to save the rest of the body or mercy killings that had to be performed.
He felt a sudden sharp pain in his thigh and looked down to find that there was a dagger sticking out of his leg, one small enough to fit in the palm of a man’s hand, which, he reasoned, was why he hadn’t realized it was there until now.
Which of his many attackers had managed to slip the blade into him unnoticed? It seemed like he had been fighting anywhere between two and four of the English soldiers since the battle began. They had been worthy adversaries, to be sure, and enough to best most hardened warriors in combat.
Except that “most warriors” have not been trained by the likes of my brother Dand the Wild,Aodh thought, or my brother-in-law Laird Fergus Brodie. Most warriors have been taught how to survive battles, not how to prevail in entire wars, or how to lead a whole clan when called upon to do so.
Yes, this was exactly what Aodh had been honing and preparing himself for ever since he’d been old enough to lift a sword. He hadn’t been like other boys his age, cheerfully pretending at swordplay with sticks and imagining the glory and drama of thrilling victories. He had acquainted himself with the more solemn horrors of bloodshed—of the dark responsibilities that come with each draw of a blade—and long since steeled himself against them.
Or at least, he thought he had. Today, he was not nearly as sure.
Because now another sound began to join the faint chorus of dead and dying men: the raspy and throaty cackles of crows as they settled down to feast upon the flesh of the slain. They hopped around on the bodies with smug triumph, claiming them for their own and daring anyone to stop them from spearing the bleeding meat with their beaks.
The sight of it was perfectly natural after such a fight. It still made Aodh feel as though he might throw up.
He wanted to chase the crows away, but he knew that more would come to replace them in moments. He wanted to command his remaining men to drag the bodies to carts and begin the process of returning them to their loved ones for a proper burial but he knew that it would be a waste of their efforts, which were currently needed in assisting the healers.
More than anything, he wanted an end to this damned war.
It had raged on for twenty-three days, though at this point, it felt more like twenty-three years to Aodh.
To say there had previously been “peace” between the English and the Highlanders would not have been true. There had been plenty of enmity seething between the two for generations. It had not, however, bloomed into open slaughter until the previous month, when an ambitious Englishman named George Lloyd inherited a lordship and decided that it presented an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Crown. He’d used his newly acquired wealth and status to raise an army (many of whom were mercenaries) and brazenly marched them down into Scottish lands so that he could conquer a piece of the country in the name of the king.
The Crown had not officially condoned such actions or sent reinforcements of their own to bolster Lloyd’s efforts.
Neither had they condemned them.
It seemed that the monarchy’s current position was to simply wait and see who prevailed so that their own hands might remain clean regardless of the outcome.
So Lloyd continued the advance, hacking and slashing their way through the Campbell territories and planting Union Jacks in what had been Scottish soil.
Why had Lloyd chosen to single out the Campbells for his incursion? Aodh could not say for certain. He supposed it was because he was young and relatively untested as lairds went, though he hated to imagine that so many of his countrymen had been put to the sword for such a reason.
The Campbell clan was blessed to have loyal allies such as the Brodies and the Hamiltons to call upon during such times of strife, and both clans had answered the call willingly enough, sending soldiers of their own to help bring Lloyd’s invasion to a grinding halt. The Hamiltons, in particular, had every reason to despise the English since their ancestors had been Scottish royalty until the damned Brits had taken over the country.
Despite their best efforts, though, Lloyd’s armies continued to march forward. There were reports that their forces were no longer limited to men on horseback; they had begun to drag war chariots, catapults, and battering rams along behind them as well, ominously drawing nearer to Campbell Castle with each passing day.
And if the Campbells fell, Aodh knew with grim certainty that the Hamiltons and Brodies would be next. Not only would this be a hideous tragedy, but it would also provide Lloyd with a strong military foothold from which the Crown could strike at any other area of Scotland that might try to drive them back out.
The responsibility to put a decisive end to this conflict rested upon Aodh’s shoulders, and it felt like the weight of the entire castle itself. He had always considered himself a tough and serious-minded person, and he had done all he could not to let his frustration and anxiety show since the war had begun.
Privately, though, he feared the strain might snap him like a branch after a frost.
Then all would be lost.
He heard someone clear his throat uncomfortably at his side and turned to see MacGregor, one of his most trusted lieutenants. There was a gash across his forehead, and blood was seeping down into his eyes and beard.
“Laird Aodh, the healers have told us they’ve, er…done all they can. We should load the survivors onto the wagons and return to the castle.”
Aodh nodded. He was not looking forward to facing his own people. What he’d paid for today with the lives of their kinsmen had not been a defeat, but it certainly hadn’t been much of a victory either. Lord George Lloyd’s mighty war machine had been halted, true, but only temporarily. It would surely resume its dreadful advance the following day or the day after that.
What can I do to put an end to this?Aodh pondered as he mounted his horse and rode back with his soldiers. If I continue to fight, this could very well drag on for months…I will continue to lose men, while Lloyd will simply purchase more to bolster his own ranks until we are overwhelmed and overrun. To try to negotiate a truce from a place of weakness, though, will almost surely result in a “compromise” which would weaken the clan’s position.
And, perhaps, cost me the support and loyalty of my own people.
When he was within the walls of his family’s castle once more, Aodh surveyed his surroundings, overcome with a hundred boyhood memories of the place and a hundred more memories of his time there since he’d returned from the long period of distant captivity ordered by his treacherous old uncle.
The stronghold of the Campbells was his now by right, and the people it safeguarded were his responsibility. He made a silent vow that whatever his next course of action, he would not let them down.
Every available healer who had not journeyed to the battlefront now issued forth from the castle and village to tend to the wounds of the warriors who had returned. Wives and children also rushed forward to learn the fates of the loved ones who had gone off to fight, and within moments, Aodh heard the wails and laments of those for whom the only news was tragedy.
He was not proud to admit it to himself, but the sounds of heartache and misery made him hurry inside so he could close the door to them and be alone with his thoughts.
However, when he reached his chambers, he found that Edmund had other plans for him.
Edmund had been a loyal member of the Brodie clan his entire life, but he had also served as Aodh’s most trusted advisor since the laird had been a boy in his teens. From the expression on his face, it was clear that he had seen the soldiers’ return—and he’d calculated how many had not returned.
“Things cannot continue as they are, Laird Aodh,” Edmund said. None of his usual polite salutations or good-natured preamble this time; he was more serious than Aodh had ever seen him before.
“I am well aware of that.” Aodh threw himself into a chair with a frustrated sigh. He suddenly realized that he was still wearing his battered and bloodstained armor, but in that moment, he was far too exhausted to care. “If you have any ideas, I am more than willing to entertain them.”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” the older man assented. “If you cannot prevail on the battlefield and you cannot afford to make concessions away from it, there is always the prospect of marriage.”
Aodh snickered humorlessly. “Lord George Lloyd is hardly my type, though, at this point, I suppose I’m nearly desperate enough to attempt such a proposal.”
Edmund arched an eyebrow. “Very droll, sir. But in fact, I had rather a different idea in mind.”