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Glen Arrin, Scotland1305
Soldiers gripped spears in their palms and charged forwards, their weapons aimed at his wife and daughters.
Blood dripped from a wound on his forearm, but Alex MacKinloch wouldn't stop running. A primal roar resounded from his mouth as he lifted his sword and hacked his way toward the women. His lungs burned as he fought, the battle haze clouding his awareness of reality. In the distance, he saw his wife Laren's gleaming red hair as she struggled through a waterfilled ditch. Her skirts weighed her down and she held their younger daughter in her arms. She didn't see the dozens of soldiers approaching as she tried to evacuate the fortress.
I have to reach them. Or they'll die.
It was a reality he didn't want to face, and the thought of his Laren falling beneath a soldier's blade was a horror he couldn't grasp. His arm ached with a vicious pain, but he fought a path towards them. The soldiers blocked his line of vision until all he could see was a swift storm of arrows.
A pulse thundered in his ears until he realised the arrows were coming from their younger brother Callum, who was guarding the women and children. Flames erupted from the wooden keep that stood high above them, like a dying sentry.
The fortress was going to fall. He ran as hard as he could and heard his kinsman Ross breathe, 'Mary, Mother of God.'
As Alex rushed forwards, he heard the cracking of wood.
'Callum, dive!' shouted a man's voice from behind her.
Laren MacKinloch struggled through the forest, her skirts sodden with water as the keep surrendered to the flames and collapsed. She stared through the trees, in shock at the sight of her home.
And what of Alex, her husband? 'Take Mairin and Adaira,' she begged Vanora, handing over her daughters. 'I'll join you in a few moments.'
'You can't go back,' the older matron warned. 'This isn't over yet.'
'I won't leave the trees,' Laren promised. I just need to see him. I need to know if he's safe.
She didn't wait for Vanora's reply, but moved back to the forest's edge, holding on to a slender birch tree for balance. Her breath frosted in the evening air as the cold settled around the glen.
When English soldiers surrounded the men from both sides, she felt her heart branching into silent pieces of terror. Dear God, no.
She couldn't hear what was happening, but the look of grim finality on Alex's face meant that the worst was near. As she stared from her hiding place, the years seemed to fall back. No longer was he a powerful chief but instead, the man she'd once loved. The fist of heartbreak caught her and tears dampened her cheeks. They'd grown so far apart over the past two years, and now she didn't know if she would see him alive again.
If she had one last moment with him, there were too many words to speak. Too many things she'd locked away in her heart for far too long.
Her palm pressed against the tree bark. Though Alex couldn't see her, she kept her gaze fixed upon him, as if she could memorise his face and hold it for ever.
A fiery pain blasted through her right side. Laren's knees buckled beneath her and she gasped in shock at the arrow embedded within her skin.
The searing agony stunned her and she could barely keep her senses about her. Though it was a shallow wound, piercing the soft skin sideways, near her ribs, she'd not realised how close she was to the battle.
She forced herself to snap off the feathered end, sliding the arrow free of the wound. Blood poured from her side and she pressed her dark cloak against the flow, fighting the dizziness.
You have to go back to your girls, her mind warned. She couldn't stay, no matter how much she feared for Alex's life. One of them had to live, to take care of their daughters.
It wrenched her apart, having to choose between her husband and her children, but she forced herself to continue. If the English gained the victory, they would come looking for the survivors. Her daughters needed her and she had to protect them.
She struggled up to the top of the ridge. Each step sent another wave of pain raging through her side, but she ignored the wound, hiding it beneath her dark cloak. There would be time to tend it later.
When she reached the girls, her elder daughter threw her arms around her waist, weeping. At the ages of four and not quite two, Mairin and Adaira weren't old enough to understand what was happening. Laren caught her breath, keeping Mairin's hands away from the injury while she spoke soft, reassuring words.
'Where is Da?' her daughter demanded. 'Is he safe?'
'I don't know.' Laren's throat tightened with fear, her eyes burning. 'But we have to wait here for him, away from the soldiers.'
'I'm afraid,' her daughter sobbed.
Laren brushed a kiss against Mairin's forehead. So am I.
The earth trembled as dozens of horsemen surrounded their army on both sides. Robert Fitzroy, the Baron of Harkirk, watched in fury as more of the Scots poured in, reinforced by the French. His hand tightened upon the hilt of his sword and he wanted nothing more than to bathe his weapon in their blood.
The MacKinlochs were supposed to die this day. Hadn't he burned their fortress to the ground, slaughtering their kinsmen? He'd already planned to set up an outpost here, to secure more land for King Edward Plantagenet, but he could see his victory fading away like smoke.
'Pull back!' he ordered and his soldiers obeyed. Though it splintered his pride, he hadn't survived halfadozen battles by making foolish decisions that would endanger his neck.
As they retreated into the hills, Harkirk cast a backwards glance. This wasn't over. Not by half.
He vowed that the next time he looked upon the face of a MacKinloch, it would be mounted upon a pike outside his gates.
It took a quarter of an hour to reach the ridge and Alex helped his brother up to the top of the hill. Nairna looked worried, for although they had survived with only minor injuries, traces of battle madness lurked within her husband's face. But Alex felt certain that once they brought Bram home, his brother would make a full recovery.
When they reached the clearing, the first glimpse of Laren sent a roaring breath of relief back through Alex's lungs. The instinct pulled at him, to go to her. He needed to hold his wife and breathe in the scent of her skin, touching her soft red hair.
Laren started to take a step towards him, but she abruptly stopped, her face ashen. Her hand pressed to her side and then she turned her attention to their girls. Their clansmen were watching, and at their sudden attention she shrank back.
He couldn't understand why. Aye, they'd grown apart over the past two years, but was it so much to ask that she show him a grain of affection? That she could welcome him back into her arms? The pain in her eyes bothered him, for he didn't understand it. Wasn't she glad to see him alive?
Though Mairin and Adaira called out, Laren bent and spoke quietly, as if to prevent them from running to him. Adaira clutched Laren's leg, burying her face in her mother's skirts.
A thousand moments passed by in a single second. Pride froze out the aching emotions, and Alex stared back at his wife, wishing she would meet him halfway. But she merely gave him a nod and moved away with the girls, unable to face him.
Something was wrong. She'd closed herself off from him and he didn't know why. His hand tightened on the door frame and he forced himself to look after Bram. 'Will you be all right with him?' Alex asked Nairna, who had helped her husband to sit upon their bed.
'Aye.' She poured water into a basin and retrieved a cloth to tend Bram's wounds. When she had wrung out the cloth, she sent Alex a pointed look. 'Go to Laren. She needs you.'
He left them alone, watching the way Nairna cared for her husband. The deep love in her eyes and the answering look in her husband's face brought a surge of envy. He wanted to be with Laren right now, to shatter the invisible wall between them.
The thought became a thorn, digging deeper into his pride. She was the woman he'd pledged to protect. Years ago, she would have thrown herself into his arms, not caring what anyone else thought. She'd have clung to him, whispering words of how she'd worried.
But now she kept her distance from him, almost as if they were strangers.
His frustration strung tighter as he walked among the survivors, asking about their welfare. During that time, not once had Laren moved towards him. Her face was white, as though she were too timid to move.
Damn it all, he didn't care if she no longer wanted him. They'd survived their brush with death; right now he wanted to hold her. He needed her in his arms, whether or not she was too shy to answer the embrace.
He crossed through the people, moving directly towards her. Without voicing a single word, he pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. She let out a slight gasp, but her hands moved up to his shoulders, resting there. He didn't speak, didn't reveal any of the thoughts coursing through his mind. Adaira and Mairin each grabbed his legs, but right now, he needed Laren.
Dimly, he was aware that she wasn't quite holding him in return. Her hands were there, but there was no warmth, no answering embrace. His heart numbed when he pulled back to look at her, his hands resting at her waist.
He'd mistakenly believed that if he made the first move she would welcome him back, that the past two years of distance wouldn't matter any more, because they were alive. But she didn't look at him, as if she were too shy to speak.
He let his hands fall away, saying nothing. The girls were chattering, asking him questions about when they could go home, where they would sleep, and he couldn't give them an answer.
His kinsman Ross came near, and asked, 'Do you want to bring your family to our home for the night?' Since Ross's home was on the opposite side of the fortress, it had escaped the fires.
Alex never took his eyes from Laren, but agreed. 'Aye, if it's no trouble to you.'
'Not at all. Vanora will want to fuss over the wee ones, as she likes to do.' His gaze grew sombre, staring at the smoke that rose from the valley below. 'And you'll be needing a place to stay until you can rebuild the keep.'
'I'll take the girls there now,' Laren said quietly, 'if you think it's safe to return.' Her voice was shaky, but at his nod she guided their daughters away from the crowds. As they disappeared into the forest, Ross was saying something else to him, but Alex didn't hear a word of it.
His wife was behaving strangely and he didn't know why. Then his gaze drifted down to his hands. Blood stained his palms from where he'd held his wife.
It was Laren's blood.
Laren held Adaira's hand as Mairin skipped forwards. She kept her head held high, even though the tears flowed freely down her face. She kept her hand firmly upon the bleeding wound at her side, trying not to take deep breaths. When Alex had held her, his hands had pressed against it and she'd nearly passed out from the pain. The injury felt like an aching fire, but she refused to pity herself.
She'd said nothing of it to the girls. They were frightened after the battle and the last thing she needed was for her daughters to start crying again. Right now it took her full concentration to keep from breaking down in front of them. She'd never known that a minor wound could hurt this badly.
Now that the enemy soldiers were gone, she could return to Glen Arrin for a little privacy to tend it. The wetness against her hand told her that the bleeding had started up again and stars swam in front of her eyes.
You should have told Alex, an inner voice chided. The very thought of her husband sent a quiet ache of regret through her. When he'd taken her in his arms, the urge to cling to him and sob out her miseries had been so tempting. But the last thing he'd needed was a hysterical wife bleeding all over him in front of everyone. He had to be strong in front of the clan, to be the leader they needed in this time of crisis. There was time to speak of it later, when they were alone.
Laren took a deep breath, wiping the tears away. For now, she had to bring the girls to Ross's home for shelter.
'Why are you crying, Mama?' Mairin asked, coming to her side. 'Are you sad?'
'I'm just tired,' she lied. She had to hold herself together right now. Alex would be busy sorting out places for the rest of the clan to live; likely he wouldn't join them until later tonight.
'Da!' Mairin shouted, breaking free of her. Laren turned and saw Alex striding towards them. Her heart sank, for he looked furious. Instinctively, her hand went back to her wound, pressing against the flow of blood.
'Why didn't you tell me?' he demanded, raising up his hands. Upon them, she saw her own blood.
'It's nothing,' she said. 'I'll be all right.' To the girls she said, 'Mairin, I want to talk to your father for a moment. Take Adaira down to the bottom of the hill and wait for us.'
Her daughter paled at the sight of Alex's face and didn't argue, retreating with her sister.
'What happened?' he demanded.
'It was just an arrow. It pierced the skin here ' she pointed to her bleeding side ' but it's only a small wound. I'll have Vanora help me with it.'
'Were you trying to hide it from me?' In his voice, she heard traces of fear, mingled with his anger.
'You had too much on your mind and I didn't want to be a bother, not when it's something so minor.'
'You were shot with an arrow, Laren. Why in the name of God would you think I wouldn't want to bother with that?'