Torn Between the Highland Brothers (Preview)

Chapter 1

Ewan Castle 1296

Kyla McCormack stood in her chamber, wringing her hands as her bright green eyes stared out of the window. It opened out onto the vast plains and the river beyond, and in the bright sunshine, it seemed like she could see for miles. “Och, Mary, it has been so long since they left for battle and nae word. My whole body is tremblin’. It has been weeks now!”

Mary, her young, red-cheeked chambermaid, came up beside her and touched her lightly on the arm. Mary had brown hair pulled tightly back and had kind grey eyes. “Mistress, all will be well. Ye ken already that battles take a long time. There are preparations tae be made, the men tae heal and bury, and the return journey. It may be even more time.” Kyla nodded but didn’t reply and kept chewing on the side of her lip.

Mary smiled. “I ken why ye are so worried, lass. But ye must nae be afeared, for Bram is young and strong. Ye will yet see yer weddin’ day come tae pass.”

Kyla turned to her young friend, the only person she knew in this large, dark castle, and smiled. “Thank ye, Mary. Ye are so right. He is strong, the strongest fighter in the clan. Yer encouragement does me well.”

“Good.” Mary moved to a small wooden table to the side and poured her mistress red wine. “Here. Drink this. It will ease the nerves.”

Kyla nodded and took a large sip from the pewter cup, her eyes still fixed on the wilds beyond. It had been over a month now since she’d been housed in Ewan Castle, away from her family far to the south. Soon after, before they could complete the uniting of the McCormack and Ewan clans through marriage, news of the battle had come to them, and then men had left for the coastline, righteous anger in their eyes.

Kyla licked her lips, savoring the sweet and comforting taste of the wine, her hand tightly clutching the cup. She put it down, twisting her red hair in her fingertips, wrapping an elegantly sleeved arm around her waist. Despite Kyla’s knowledge of his strength, her mind began to wander, going down dangerous paths. When would he come back? What if handsome, wonderful Bram was lost to her? What was she to do then far away in a new and strange part of the world forever? Her father had desired this union for years now, but it was only recently that she had come of age, ready to be wed. Although many other women had been forced into marriage, Kyla was happy to do so after she had met Bram a few times.

He was tall and strong, with long, light brown hair, and his eyes were the color of honey mead. The taste of his kiss was enough to send a trembling weakness to her knees, although they had only indulged twice, in hidden regions of the castle, when Mary was not around, and when her father was busy with Bram’s. He was kind tae her, and he looked at her with affection and spoke to her lovingly, not like her harsh father who always expected so much of her. She was ready for marriage to Bram, and she loved him dearly. She just wished he would come back and come back soon, for she missed him and hated the idea of him in battle.

Squinting to help her vision just a bit, Kyla was about to turn away from the window when she spotted riders coming from the east, racing towards the castle. At first, her heart fluttered with fear, afraid that it could be a group of rogue Englishmen who had traveled inward, hoping to pillage and plunder those in the countryside. But soon, she smiled when she saw the Ewan colors and the gleam of swords against the horses’ sides. “Mary!” she said excitedly, grabbing the arms of her chambermaid tightly as she spun around and moved to the door. “The men are back! Bram is home!”

Mary turned and looked out of the window. “So few have returned,” she said in a solemn voice, but Kyla barely heard her as she unlatched the wooden door and hurried out into the stone corridor, rushing along its length, grasping her skirts as she hurried herself along.

Bram is back, and now we can marry and live forever in happiness, as we were goin’ tae.

 A smile touched her lips, and her heart flipped with excitement as she finally rushed into the bottom great hall of the castle, watching as the servants, murmuring with interest, hurried to the door. The smell of hay and smoke was in the air, and it would soon also be filled with the scent of horses and sweat. The servants pulled open the large wooden door, wanting to be ready for their master’s return. Standing a little farther back, Kyla smoothed her dark skirt and felt Mary’s touch at her side as her chambermaid arrived breathless beside her. Kyla waited patiently, and she pulled at the ends of her red hair, hoping to smooth them down just a bit, even though her curls were often wild. She wanted to look her best for her betrothed. She ached suddenly for the feel of his strong arms around her again. Her Bram, home and safe.

She took a deep breath as she heard hooves clatter over the stone bridge, and a horse appeared in the yawning open door to the hall, black-haired Clyde atop it. Kyle smiled widely, happy to greet her future brither-in-law, but as she stepped forward, she paused as she saw the tired and hardened look on Clyde’s face. The other horses entered in, and not one of them held Bram. Worry began to thread through her mind, but she could not even bear to think of his loss until she spoke to Clyde.

Mary slid her arm into her mistress’, and Kyla was grateful for the gesture. Clyde jumped down from his horse, and a servant rushed to take the bridle from his master. Clyde’s steely green eyes looked around the room, and they stopped when they alighted on Kyla and Mary. He walked towards them, tall and erect, with his hands in fists at his side. His clothing was torn and bloody, and he winced ever so slightly as he made his way towards them.

Kyla’s throat tightened with each step he took. She moved forward as well, wanting desperately to hear his news. Perhaps Bram was simply injured and would be home soon once he was well enough. That thought gave her a flutter of hope until she saw Clyde’s eyes as she met him face-to-face. They were stark and red-rimmed. “Clyde,” she said slowly. “Where is Bram? What news of the battle?”

Clyde cleared his throat. His mouth twisted in a slight grimace, giving him an even more stern appearance. His long, hooked nose didn’t make the expression any more favorable. When he spoke, his voice sounded thick, as if it was painful for him to speak. “The English took the castle, but only because the Lord of Douglas surrendered, and his men were spared. But we lost many.” He motioned to the bedraggled men behind him, servants bringing them water and wine, removing the horses to the stable. He looked down and took a trembling breath. Softly, he said, “Bram fell, M’lady. He was taken at the end of the battle. I am sorry.” He didn’t look up again, and he lifted a hand to his face.

Kyla blinked and clutched Mary tightly as the words repeated in her mind. Bram is gone. She opened her mouth, trying to utter something, anything to take away the sting of this horrible news. Her handsome, powerful Bram was gone. The man she had given her heart to, to whom she wanted to give her heart for the rest of her days! Dead. It didn’t seem real. How could he be dead, when in her mind’s eye, he was so alive, pulsing with strength and liveliness? What was she to do now that he was gone—taken from her? The world shook before her eyes, and she felt the strong arms of Clyde and Mary try to grab her as she fell to the ground.


A time later, he knew not when, the crackling of a fire and the hum of a light voice lifted Bram from his sleep. He awoke, suddenly gasping for breath, feeling sweat on his face. His heart raced at his rude awakening, and he turned, his eyes desperate to comprehend what surrounded him. He was on his side, and he faced brick walls, poorly built, and he could sense a slight breeze blowing through the cracks, even though straw had been stuffed hastily between the open spots. Slowly, his eyes moved across the low cottage. He could see a thatched roof, and then he saw a large open fireplace, with a fire burning strong inside of it. Next to it was a long wooden table, and hovering over a bowl was the shape of an old woman, the rounded hump of her back more visible as she bent over in her dark cloak.

“Ye,” he said in a dry voice. He licked his lips to moisten his mouth a bit, trying to lift himself up, but he winced in pain. “Who are ye? What do I do here?” he asked.

The old woman’s dark eyes snapped up to meet his, and she dropped the implements she was using and pointed to him, a shadow of a smile on her face. “Ye have been wounded, warrior, and so I heal ye.” She watched him a moment and then returned to her work as if her minor explanation was enough to placate him. Her voice did not sound the way he’d expected. Despite her wizened appearance, her voice was soft and kind, that of a much younger woman.

“Am I nae dead? Who are ye? How have ye found me?” After trying a few times in vain to sit up, he laid back down again on his side, feeling the sharp pain in his back begin to throb.

The old woman chuckled. “My name is of nae consequence, lad, but I found ye layin’ on a battlefield.” She sucked in her breath and shook her head. Her eyes were sorrowful. “The death. The destruction these English have wrought. There were so many bodies. I came, and I saw that ye breathed yet.”

“But how could ye have possibly moved me?” he asked, intrigued by her tale. A white, veined hand lifted out of her cloak and waved in the air as if dismissing his question.

She took up a brown clay bowl and walked to his side. Without warning, she lifted it to his lips. “Drink this. It will help ye feel even better, now that the fever is passed. Ye can rest again. Rest is what ye need, lad.”

He drank, even though he didn’t know if he could trust the woman, for it felt good to have liquid pass down his throat and ease the pain of dryness. It was not a bad taste, and it was warm, although he couldn’t identify the flavor. Once the bowl was finished, the old woman sighed with satisfaction. “There, lad, now ye can rest again.”

His eyes were closed, and he could feel weariness stealing over him, but he still tried to speak. “Old woman, I am a laird. Laird Ewan. My men…my brither, I must get back t’my castle at Foulden. They will wonder where I am. She will wonder tae. Kyla,” he said, his voice drifting off as he spoke, the feeling of whatever she had given him spreading through him warmly like wine.

“Kyla,” the old woman replied in her soft voice as he felt the darkness spreading in his mind. “What a bonny name, that.”

Chapter Two

Kyla felt a rough hand touch her cheek, and when she opened her eyes, she was looking into Clyde’s concerned face. “Kyla, lass,” he said softly and lifted her to stand. “Forgive me for sharing such news so bluntly.” He sniffed a little. The grogginess slowly left her mind, and she frowned at the sight of Clyde paling as she stood waveringly on her feet, Mary on her other side.

“News,” she said quietly, and then the shock of what Clyde had shared with her came back to her. “Och, Bram,” she answered, feeling tears fill her eyes. The thought of him lying bloody in the long fields of battle made her chest tighten with agony. He was so loving, so bonny, and now he is gone.

She looked down at her hand as Clyde’s large one slid into it. Clyde was so different from Bram. While Bram reminded her of green fields and bright sunshine, Clyde made her think of deep lochs and incoming storms. He moved closer, and suddenly, his strong scent of sweat filled her senses. It made her ache inside for the old smell of Bram when he returned from the fields or a long ride. She would never have the chance to smell that scent again, and that knowledge made her feel hollow. She squeezed Clyde’s hand in comfort and glanced at his pale face. “Yer brither, lad. I am sorry for ye. How did he die?” she asked.

“I thank ye, Kyla. I didnae imagine that my elder brither could now be gone. So strong and the most skilled fighter in the clan.” A dark look came over Clyde’s face, and he punched a fist into his hand. “Those damned English! Takin’ my only family from me!”

Kyla saw the fury and grief in his eyes, and her heart went out to him. It matched the pain in her own. Clyde continued, looking off into the distance. “There was a rush by the castle. Soldiers came out, even though we thought that most of them had retreated. We fought bravely, but at the end of it, when we had lost many and killed what soldiers we could, I found him on the ground, his back covered in blood.”

Kyla closed her eyes, not wanting that image in her mind, and a tear squeezed out, slowly tracing its way down her cheek. “I see.” She let go of Clyde’s hand and turned away. “Forgive me, Clyde. I must go t’my room. I must…”

“Of course, Milady. Ye are nae well. We can speak later. I will send the priest tae ye?” Kyla nodded, hardly hearing him. Her whole future was now nothing. The path of her life that she had seen in her mind for so long was now gone. Her dearest love had left her alone in the world. Mary held her elbow as they moved up the stairs.

“I will send for the healer, mistress,” Mary said.

Nae, please,” Kyla protested once they were up the stairs. “I just need t’ lay doon, I think. It is quite a shock. I cannae imagine him gone. He was so strong, Mary. As ye said.”

“Aye, mistress. He was strong, tae be certain. I am very sorry for the loss of him. For ye.” They were silent for a time as Mary helped her to her room, and feeling strong fatigue come over her, Kyla slid into bed, her emotions raw.

“Is this what love feels like, Mary? When ye lose someone ye love, do ye feel as though a part of ye has been taken? Leavin’ ye empty?”

“Aye,” Mary said solemnly, lifting the woolen blanket over Kyla, and she sat down next to her. Mary had lost her husband a year before to an illness. “It feels just like that. Ye didnae ken each other for very long, but I ken that ye cared much for Bram. He was goin’ tae be a good husband. A good laird.”

Kyla nodded and reached out for Mary’s hand. “He would have been. I know it.” Kyla smiled weakly at the thought of what could have been. “Och, what will Father say now? I dinnae relish the thought of writin’ t’ him. He will be at a loss now that his son-in-law is gone.”

“Aye, Bram was a good man. Yer father will see it as a great loss indeed. As will yer mother. They were lookin’ forward tae havin’ him in the family.”

Kyla wrapped her arms about herself, dreaming that it was Bram who could hold her instead, and she could breathe in his strong, male scent. The scent that made her feel at home and like all was well with the world. “Father has prepared for this moment for so many years. This is m’ clan now. Those were his words to me as we parted. Dinnae ye remember?”

“Aye,” Mary said in a quiet voice. “I remember it. He wanted ye tae think of Ewan Castle as yer new home and nae look back tae the past.

Kyla agreed, but she also knew her father was happy to have her gone so that the alliance could bring him benefits as soon as possible. She took a breath, and when she released it, she felt a hollow ache in her chest. Bram was really gone. Taken. Dead. She would have to live the rest of her life without him, and she had no idea how she would do it. How could she possibly survive without him?

“Och Mary, what am I t’do? How will I ever live without him? I feel untethered, set loose in a strange sea. And now I feel as though we are imposin’ on the Ewan hospitality.” Her tears started afresh. “I cannae go home. M’ Father wanted the powerful link of the Ewan and McCormick lairds, but I wanted the man. I only wanted the man.”

Mary shushed and soothed her. “All will be well, Mistress. Dinnae fash yerself just yet. Rest now.” Kyla closed her eyes, but she could hear Mary moving about and the sound of her wine cup being placed on the table next to the bed. “Rest,” Mary whispered again, and Kyla took a breath as Mary closed the door behind her.

She felt like a little girl, her fate now tied to the world of men, and she had no way out. Would Clyde allow her and Mary to stay here in the castle until they knew what to do next? Perhaps she should find a distant relative to go and see instead of staying here and instead of returning home to shame. Kyla hated this powerlessness. Even though she had been sad to leave her home, she was glad to finally be away from the stifling atmosphere of her father’s constant instruction and her mother’s daily reminder of her duty as a woman. And as the oldest, with a younger sister below her, she knew her actions had to be without reproach.

Finally, she had come to Ewan Castle knowing that kind and loving Bram was to be her husband. He never scolded nor instructed. He enjoyed her whims and fancies, and she felt freer than she ever had. But now, she was a grieving woman, alone in the world. She wanted to shake her head and slide under the blanket, refusing to accept the truth that he was gone. Kyla drifted off to sleep, the vision of Bram’s honey-colored eyes in her dreams.


Two months later

Bram slid the last bit of bread he had been given into his mouth. It was now cold, for he’d been sleeping when she’d left it by his bed. He was sitting up in his bed, but his limbs were desperate for activity. The nameless old woman sat nearby, stirring something in a bowl on the table. The room was slightly chilly, for no fire burned in the hearth. Bram had left the small cottage a few times in the past two months to walk around the tiny glen where her cottage was housed. However, he always returned, his face pale, the pain in his back beginning to throb.

“When can I leave, woman? What wound is this that keeps a man so tied tae his bed?” He was growing surlier with each day that passed, knowing that his men and Kyla would take him for dead. They must not have been able to remain behind to bury the bodies and so had not seen that he still lived. He wasn’t sure if he was angry or hurt.

The old woman clucked with her tongue and shook her head. She didn’t look his way and just kept stirring methodically, over and over. “Ye are an impatient one. It takes time tae heal all wounds, ye ken. This one was deep, and it nearly killed ye. How close it came to severin’ yer back in half. The blade was still inside of ye when I found ye.”

He was amazed he had not thought to ask before then. His memory of the event was still foggy, and so he was surprised to hear the woman’s account.

“By God.” He shook his head and continued to eat, amazed that he had survived such an ordeal. He wondered if it was not by the grace of God that he had been spared. His fear of not being able to return to his clan was lessened by that small comfort. He could still be Laird and follow his father’s proud legacy. He would not have to descend into dishonor for not fulfilling his destiny. However, I need t’get back there in order tae fulfill that destiny.

“I fear that I will go mad here unless I can finally be free! How much longer?”

She chuckled. “I think it will be another moon more, and then ye will be well enough tae return t’ yer stronghold in Foulden. I will give ye a horse when the time is right.”

Bram frowned. He had not seen any stable on his walks around, nor seen a horse at all, but he shrugged it off. Another moon and he could be gone and finally see Kyla again if she had not gone back to her family to the south once she figured he was dead.

He stood. “I will try tae walk again, then. I have eaten and so feel a little stronger. My mind grows foggy with lack of activity.”

“I will come as well,” the old woman said, lifting her dark hood over her head. “A storm will come soon.” She sniffed the air a little. “And I will hold ye up when ye tire. It is time we can push just a little bit t’ test the extent of yer strength, lad. Come.”

Bram was disappointed that she would accompany him, but he said nothing, fearful that he would cause offense. The woman had saved his life after all, and he owed her kindness if nothing else. Besides, she was the only one to speak to in this empty place, and so that would have to entertain him.

Outside in the cooling air, Bram could spy dark clouds slowly making their way across the sky. He could smell the scent of incoming rain as well. He felt the old woman’s thin arm slide into his, and he held on, amazed at how sturdy a crutch she was as they moved out of the glen and through the trees. “Ye wish tae go far?” he asked.

She smiled. “I think a sight of the blue loch will do ye good, lad. Although, we dinnae wish t’ be tae conspicuous. And we must nae tarry tae long, in order t’ nae get caught in the rain.”

Bram nodded. “Tell me of this Kyla ye mentioned,” the old crone said as their feet crunched over the sticks and pine needles of the forest. Bram could spy the winking of something shiny in the distance. The loch was not far.

“Kyla,” he said, annoyed at the clench of pain in his chest at the memory of her. So bonny, so cheery and hopeful. “She is m’ betrothed. We were tae be married, but then news of the battle came, and there was nae time tae make all the proper preparations.”

“I see. She is from another clan? From far away?”

“Aye, how did ye ken?” he asked, his eyebrows lifting.

The old woman chuckled. “It is m’ way, lad.”

“Well, I do fear now that she has taken me for dead, she may have returned tae her family. Or worse. Married someone else.” The thought of that hurt more than his wound. He had not known her for very long, but as soon as he’d laid eyes on her, even before his father had made the agreement with hers, he’d wanted her. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, so graceful and elegant with her long neck and long red hair.

When she’d first turned her green eyes on him, she looked even more beautiful as her cheeks colored with embarrassment. Then, when his father had told them both that they were to be married, their clans uniting, his heart had tripped with excitement. He had tried his best to get her alone after that, to speak to her, to learn all about her. They had even kissed a few times, and he knew deep in his heart that this was the woman he wanted.

Bram roused from his reverie by the feel of the old woman patting his hand comfortingly. “I dinnae think that will be yer fate, lad.” Bram wondered why this woman was being so kind to him and allowing him to stay for so long and without payment. It didn’t make any sense. “Ye are far tae handsome for any woman tae remove ye so quickly from their thoughts.” At that, she burst into laughter, and Bram found himself smiling at her compliment. They stumbled down to the edge of the loch, and he breathed in the fresh air, enjoying the cool breeze that was sweeping over the dark blue waters.

“I ken this place,” he said at long last, although I have only seen it from the other shore.

“Aye, I am certain. We are nae far from the battlefield from whence I took ye.”

“Och, the forest. Ettrick Forest?” Bram asked, and she smiled.

“Aye. Deep in the woods we are if ye are concerned about bein’ found.”

“Nae.” He shook his head. “I think the English are far tae satisfied with how much destruction they wrought tae go on the hunt for one Scotsman who yet breathes.” He grumbled, not wanting to remember the sight of so much blood and carnage, and yet the image was still fresh in his mind as if it was yesterday. “Do ye ken what happened? Where the English went next?”

“Nae. Nae me. Ye can see that I keep away from people for the most part. I have nae interest in the world of kings and countries.”

“But lairds ye seem to take a keen interest in, old woman.”

She laughed again, such a sweet, tinkling sound; it still surprised him every time she did so. “Aye. That is true. Well, I take nae interest in politics, only tae help m’fellow man when the opportunity arises.” Thunder rolled in the distance, and she tightened her hold on him. “Come, lad. We shall return tae the cottage and the fire.”

He looked up at the sky, feeling better than he had in the past two months. Feeling refreshed. “Aye.”

They walked back in companionable silence, and Bram could feel the heaviness in the air as the rain approached. When they entered the cottage, Bram was surprised to see a fire lit and blazing in the hearth. He frowned and looked at the old woman. “How have ye done that, then? Is there a servant come tae light the fire while we were away?”

She chuckled. “Nae at’all. It was lit afore we left, lad, but now it has grown larger and thus drawn yer attention. Go and sit. I will bring ye somethin’ warm t’ drink.”

Bram said nothing more, and his head had begun to feel a little bit foggy after the long walk. He wandered to his bed and watched the old woman suspiciously as she worked at the table in front of the flames. He knew he was right. There had been no fire there when they’d left. And now, one was burning wildly as if it had been roaring for hours. How could it be?


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