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Bram MacKinloch couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten or slept. The numbness consumed him, and all he could do now was keep going. He'd been imprisoned in the darkness for so many years, he'd forgotten what the sun felt like upon his skin. It blinded him, forcing him to keep his gaze fixed upon the ground.
God's bones, he couldn't even remember how long he'd been running. Exhaustion had blotted away the visions until he didn't know how many English soldiers were pursuing him or where they were now. He'd stayed clear of the valley, keeping to the hills and the fir trees that would hide him from view.
His clothing and hair were soaked, after he'd swum through a river to mask his scent from the dogs.
Had there been dogs? He couldn't remember anymore. Shadows blurred his mind, until he didn't know reality from the nightmares.
Keep going, he ordered himself. Don't stop. Not now.
His footing slipped as he crossed the top of the hill and he stumbled to the ground. Before he rose, he listened hard for the sound of his pursuers.
Nothing. Silence stretched across the Highlands, with only the sound of birds and insects breaking the stillness. He grabbed at the grass, using it to regain his balance. After he stood, he turned in a slow circle in all directions. From the top of the hill, he could see no one. Only the vast expanse of craggy green mountains and the clouded sky above him.
He drank in the sight, savouring the open air and the land that he'd missed these past seven years. Though he was far from home, these mountains were known to him, like old friends.
Bram steadied his breathing, taking a moment to rest. He should have been grateful that he'd broken free of his prison, but guilt held him captive now. His brother Callum was still locked away in that godforsaken place.
Let him be alive, Bram prayed. Let it not be too late. If he had to sell his own soul, he'd get Callum out. Especially after the price he'd paid for his own freedom.
He started moving west, towards Ballaloch. If he kept up his pace, it was possible to reach the fortress within the hour. He hadn't been there in years, not since he was sixteen. The MacPhersons would grant him shelter, but would they remember or even recognise him?
Cold emptiness filled him, and he rubbed at his scarred wrists. The days without any rest had taken their toll, causing his hands to shake. What he wouldn't give for a dreamless night, one where his mind no longer tormented him.
But one dream held steady, of the woman he'd thought about each night over the past seven years. Nairna.
Despite the nightmares of his imprisonment, he'd kept her image fixed in his mind. Her green eyes, the brown hair that fell to her waist. The way she'd smiled at him, as if he were the only man she'd ever wanted.
A restless sense of regret pulled at him, as he wondered what had happened to her over the years. Had she grown to hate him? Or had she forgotten him? She would be different now. Changed, like he was.
After so many years lost, he didn't expect her to feel anything towards him. And though he'd never wanted to leave her behind, Fate had dragged him down another path.
He reached to finger the edge of his tunic, touching the familiar stone that he'd kept hidden within a seam. Over the years, he'd nearly worn the small stone flat. Nairna had given him the token on the night he'd left to fight against the English. So many times, he'd clenched the stone during his imprisonment, as if he could reach out to her.
Her image had kept him from falling into madness, like an angel holding him back from hellfire. She'd given him a reason to live. A reason to fight.
Regret lowered his spirits, for it was unrealistic to imagine that she'd waited for him. After seven years, likely she would have put their memories in the past.
Unless she still loved him.
The thought was a thread of hope, one that kept him moving forwards. He was close to the MacPherson stronghold now and could take shelter with them for the night.
He imagined holding Nairna in his arms, breathing in the soft scent of her skin. Tasting her lips and forcing back the painful memories. He could lose himself in her and none of the past would matter.
As he crossed down into the valley, he saw Ballaloch, nestled between the hills like a gleaming pearl. Bram sat down on the grass, staring at the stronghold.
And then, behind him, he heard the sound of horses.
He struggled to his feet, his heart pounding. When he glanced behind him, he saw the glint of chainmail armour and soldiers.
No. The thought was a vicious command to himself. He couldn't let himself be taken captive. Not again. Not after so many years of being a slave.
He tore down the hillside, his legs shaking. But his weak body betrayed him, his knees surrendering as he fell to the ground.
The stronghold was right there. Right within his reach.
Anguish ripped through him as he fought to rise, to make his legs move.
But even when he managed to run, they overtook him with their horses, dragging him up. Gloved hands took him by the shoulders, and as he fought, they dropped a hood over his head, blinding him.
Then they struck him down, and all fell into darkness.
'Something's wrong, Jenny,' Nairna MacPherson muttered to her maid, staring out her window into the inner bailey. Four horsemen had arrived through the barbican gate, their leader dressed in chainmail armour and a conical helm. 'English soldiers are here, but I don't know why.'
'Probably Harkirk's men, come to demand more silver from your father,' Jenny answered, closing the trunk. 'But don't be fretting. It's his worry, not yours.'
Nairna turned away from the window, her mind stewing. 'He shouldn't have to bribe them. It's not right.'
Robert Fitzroy, the English Baron of Harkirk, had set up his garrison west of her father's fortress, a year after the Scottish defeat at Falkirk. There were hundreds of English outposts all across the Highlands and more emerging every year.
Her father had given them both his allegiance and his coins, simply to safeguard his people from attack.
Bloodsucking leeches. It had to stop.
'I'm going to see why they're here.' She started to move towards the door, but Jenny stepped in her way.
The old woman's brown eyes softened with sympathy. 'We're going back home this day, Nairna. I don't think you're wanting to start a disagreement with Hamish before ye return.'
The arrow of disapproval struck its intended target. Her shoulders lowered, and she wished there were something she could do to help her father. They were bleeding him dry, and she loathed the thought of what he'd done for his clan's safety.
But Ballaloch was no longer her home. Neither was Callendon, though she'd lived there for the past four years while she'd been married to the chief of the Mac-Donnell clan.
Iver was dead now. And though she'd had a comfortable life with him, it had been an empty marriage. Nothing at all like the love she'd known before.
A tendril of grief slipped within her heart for the man she'd lost, so many years ago. Bram MacKinloch's death had broken her apart, and no man could ever replace him.
Now, she was mistress of nothing and mother of no one. Iver's son and his wife had already assumed the leadership of the clan and its holdings. Nairna was an afterthought, the widow left behind. No one of importance.
The unsettled feeling of helplessness rooted deep inside. Loneliness spread across her heart with the fervent wish that she could be useful to someone. She wanted a home and a family, a place where she wouldn't be a shadow. But it felt like there was no place that she truly belonged. Not in her father's home. Not in her late husband's home.
'I won't interfere,' she promised Jenny. 'I just want to see why they're here now. He's already paid the bribes due for this quarter.'
'Nairna,' her maid warned. 'Leave it be.'
'I'll listen to what they're saying,' she said slowly, feigning a nonchalance she didn't feel. 'And I might try to speak with Da.'
Her maid grumbled, but followed her below stairs. 'Take Angus with ye,' she advised.
Nairna didn't care about a guard, but as soon as she crossed the Hall, Angus MacPherson, a thick-chested man with arms the size of broad tree limbs, shadowed her path.
Outside, she blinked at the afternoon sunlight and saw the English soldiers standing within the inner bailey. Across one of the horses lay the covered body of a man.
Her heart seized at the sight and she hurried closer. Was it a MacPherson they'd found?
Their leader was addressing Hamish, saying, 'We caught this man wandering not far from Ballaloch. One of yours, I suppose.' The soldier's mouth curled in a thin smile.
Nairna's hand gripped the dagger at her waist. Her father's face was expressionless as he stared at the soldiers. 'Is he alive?'
The man gave a nod, motioning for the other soldier to bring the body closer. They had covered their captive's face with a hood.
'How much is a man's life worth to you?' the Englishman asked. 'Fifteen pennies, perhaps?'
'Show me his face,' Hamish said quietly, sending a silent signal to his steward. Whatever price they named, Nairna knew her father would pay it. But she couldn't even tell if the prisoner was alive.
'Twenty pennies,' their leader continued. He ordered his men to lift the captive from the horse and hold him. The hooded prisoner couldn't stand upright, and from his torn clothing, Nairna didn't recognise the man. The long dark hair falling about his shoulders was their only clue to his identity.
Nairna drew closer to her father, lowering her voice. 'He's not one of ours.'
The soldiers gripped their captive by his shoulders, and another jerked the man's head backwards, baring his throat.
'Twenty-five pennies,' the Englishman demanded, unsheathing a dagger. 'His life belongs to you, MacPherson, if you want it.' He rested the blade at the prisoner's throat. At the touch of the metal against skin, the prisoner's hands suddenly closed into fists. He struggled to escape the soldiers' grip, twisting and fighting.
He was alive.
Nairna's pulse raced as she stared at the unknown man. Her hands began shaking, for she understood that they would show no mercy to the stranger. They were truly going to execute him, right in the middle of the bailey. And there was no way to know if their captive was a MacPherson or one of their enemies.
'Thirty pennies,' came her father's voice, reaching for a small purse that his steward had brought.
Their leader smiled, catching the purse as it was tossed at him. The soldiers shoved the prisoner to the ground, but after he struck the earth he didn't rise.
'Go back to Lord Harkirk,' Hamish commanded.
The English soldier mounted his horse, rejoining the others as he fingered the purse. 'I wondered if you were going to let him die. I would have killed him, you know. One less Scot.' He tossed the bag of coins, his thin smile stretching.
Angus moved forwards from behind Nairna, his hand grasping a spear in a silent threat. Other MacPherson fighters circled the English soldiers, but they had already begun their departure.
Nairna couldn't quite catch her breath at her father's blatant bribery. Thirty pennies. She felt as if the wind had been knocked from her lungs. He'd handed it over, without a second thought.
Though she didn't speak, her father eyed her. 'A man's life is more important than coins.'
'I know it.' Nairna gripped her hands together, trying to contain her agitation. 'But what will you do when they come back, demanding more? Will you continue to pay Lord Harkirk until they've seized Ballaloch and made prisoners of our people?'
Her father strode over to the fallen body of the prisoner. 'We're alive, Nairna. Our clan is one of the few left untouched. And by God, if I have to spend every last coin to ensure their safety, I will do so. Is that clear?'
She swallowed hard as Hamish rolled the man over, easing him up. 'You shouldn't have to bribe them. It's not right.'
There was no difference between the English soldiers and cheating merchants, as far as Nairna was concerned. Men took advantage, whenever it was allowed. She knelt down beside her father, trying to calm her roiling emotions.
'Well, lad, let's see who you are,' Hamish said, pulling off the hood.
Nairna's heart stopped when she saw the prisoner's face.
For it was Bram MacKinloch. The husband she hadn't seen since the day she'd married him, seven years ago.
Pale moonlight illuminated the room and Bram opened his eyes. Every muscle in his body ached, and he swallowed hard. Thirsty. So thirsty.
'Bram,' came a soft voice. 'Are you awake?'
He turned towards the sound and wondered if he was dead. He had to be, for he knew that voice. It was Nairna, the woman he'd dreamed of for so long.
A cup was raised to his lips and he drank the cool ale, grateful that she'd anticipated the need. She moved closer and lit an oil lamp to illuminate the darkness. The amber glow revealed her features, and he stared at her, afraid the vision would fade away if he blinked.
Her mouth was soft, her cheekbones well formed and her long brown hair fell freely across her shoulders. She'd become a beautiful woman.
He wanted to touch her. Just to know that she was real.
Longing swelled through him, mingled with bittersweet regret. His hand was shaking when he reached out to her. As if asking forgiveness, he stroked her palm, wishing things could have been different.
She didn't pull away. Instead, her hand curled around his, her face filled with confusion. 'I can't believe you're alive.'
He sat up and she moved beside him. With one hand clasped in hers, he touched her nape. The light scent of flowers and grass seemed to emanate from her, and he leaned closer, drinking in the sight.
God help him, he needed her right now. He threaded his hands in her hair, lifting her face to his. He took her mouth in a kiss, for she was the hope and life he'd craved for so long.
Nairna's heart was beating so fast, she hardly knew what to do. She tasted the heady danger within his kiss, of a man who didn't care about all the lost years. Bram had never been much for talking, and without words, he told her how much he'd missed her.
He kissed her as though he couldn't get enough, as though she were an answered prayer. And in spite of everything, she found herself kissing him back.