The Highlands, Scotland, 1103
Donald MacAlister didn't die easy. The old man fought to stay alive with every ounce of strength and every pound of stubbornness he possessed. Though he should have welcomed death as an end to the terrible pain and anguish he was enduring, he wouldn't give in to his suffering yet, for there was still the most important legacy of all to pass down before he could close his eyes and rest.
His legacy was hate. The laird was consumed by hatred for his enemy. He needed to see his son burn with the fever for revenge, and until he was certain the boy understood the importance of righting the terrible wrong done this dark day, he would continue to fight death. And so he clung to life and to his son's hand, so small and fragile in his big, leathery one, his black eyes boring into those of his only living heir, while the old man instructed him in his sacred duty.
"Avenge me, Connor MacAlister. Take my hatred into your heart, protect it, nurture it, and when you've grown older and stronger, use my sword to slay my enemies. I cannot die in peace until you've given me your word you'll avenge this evil deed done to me and mine. Promise me, boy."
"Yes, Father," Connor fervently vowed. "I will avenge you."
"Do you burn with the fever for revenge?"
Donald nodded with contentment. He was finally at peace, and if he lived long enough to give his son directions for his future, that was all well and good; but if the next breath he drew were to be his last, that would be acceptable to him too, because he knew his son would find a way to do what he must. Connor had already proven to be highly intelligent, and his father had complete faith in him.
'Twas a pity Donald MacAlister wouldn't be around to see his son grow into manhood, but with a broken leg and a fair-sized hole near his belly, he knew how foolish it was to wish for impossible things.
God was proving merciful, however. The pain had eased considerably in the past few minutes, and a blessed numbness was stealing up from his feet to his knees.
"Father, give me the names of the men who did this to you."
"'Twas the Kaerns who attacked. They came down from the north and from too far away to want our land. They're blood related to the MacNares, though, and I've a suspicion their laird had a hand in this evil. MacNare's always been a greedy one. He'll never be content. You'd best kill him before he causes you trouble, or his lust for more land will bring him to your doorstep. Don't act in haste," he cautioned.
"Neither the Kaerns nor the MacNares are cunning enough to have planned this boldness. They must have acted under directions from another. I don't know who the traitor is, but you'll find out. 'Tis my feeling the enemy hails from within."
"One of our own betrayed you?" Connor was stunned by the possibility.
"Since yesterday eve when they attacked, I've been considering that possibility. The Kaerns came in through passages only my followers knew about. They never would have found the entrances without direction. There's a traitor all right, and it will be your duty to ferret him out. He's one of us, Connor, of that I'm certain. God willing, he's singing the death rattle even now on my own battlefield. You'll bide your time until you have all the names. Then wreak vengeance upon all of those still living. Consider killing their sons as well, boy."
"I will, Father. I'll destroy all of them."
Donald's grip on his son's hand tightened. "This be my final lesson to you. Watch me die and learn how to live as a warrior. When you leave me, go to the path in the forest. Angus waits there to give you instructions for your immediate future."
The laird waited until his son nodded his agreement before speaking again. "Look around you and tell me what you see. Is it all gone?"
Connor stared at the destruction surrounding him, silently weeping with anguish. The stench of burning wood and fresh blood made his stomach lurch.
"The keep is in ruins, but I'll rebuild."
"Aye, you will. You must make your fortress invincible. Learn from my mistakes, Connor."
"I will make my keep stronger."
"What of my loyal men?"
"Most are dead."
The despair in the boy's voice washed over the laird, and he immediately tried to reassure him. "Their sons will come back. They'll wear your colors and claim your name. They'll follow you as their fathers followed me. The time draws near for you to leave. Wrap a cloth tight around and around your injury to stem the blood before you stand, or more will be lost with each step you take. Do it now while I rest beside you."
Connor hurried to obey his father's command, though he didn't believe his injury was significant enough to merit protection. Most of the blood covering his body was from his father's wounds, not his own.
"You'll have a scar to remind you of this black day," Donald predicted.
"I need no reminder. I won't forget."
"No, you won't forget. Does it pain you?"
Donald grunted with approval. The boy had never been a complainer, a fact his father found most pleasing. He had all the makings of a mighty warrior.
"How old are you, boy?"
"Nine or ten years now," he answered.
"I'm thinking you might be older or younger. Your size tells me you're still a boy, but your eyes have turned into those of a man. I see the bright fire of fury there, and I am pleased by you."
"I could take you with me."
"You will not drag a dead man behind you."
"Do your injuries pain you, Father?"
"'Tis the truth I don't feel anything now. I seem to have gone numb. A blessed way to die, I'm thinking.
Some men would not be as fortunate."
"I would stay with you if you…"
"You'll leave when I command you to leave," his father ordered. "You'll save yourself so you'll be able to keep your promises to me. The enemy has left, but make no mistake, they'll come back to finish it."
"We have time, Father. The sun is still high, and the enemy dragged your barrels of wine with them.
They'll be too thickheaded to come back before morning."
"Then you may linger a moment more," his father conceded.
"Will Angus send me to Euphemia to tell her what happened?"
"He will not. You will not tell that woman anything."
"But she's your wife."
"My second wife," he corrected. "Never trust a woman, Connor. 'Tis foolhardy to do so. Euphemia will find out what happened when she returns with her son, Raen. I want you to be well away from here by then. I won't have you trained by her relatives. They're all leeches."
Connor nodded so his father would know he understood, and then asked, "Did you trust my mother?"
Donald heard the worry in his son's voice and thought it was probably his duty to give him a kind remembrance of his mother. Still, the boy needed to hear the truth, and for that reason, he didn't soften his answer, but spoke from his heart.
"I did trust her, and anguish was the result. I loved your mother. She was my own sweet, bonny Isabelle, and how was I repaid for my generosity? She up and died on me, that's how, breaking my heart and leaving me desolate. Learn from my folly and save yourself the heartache. I never should have married again—I realize that now—but I am a practical man above all else, and I knew I needed heirs to follow after me in the event something foul happened to you. Still, it was a mistake. Euphemia already had one son from her past marriage, and one child was all she was capable of carrying. She did try though."
Donald paused to gather his thoughts before continuing. "I couldn't love Euphemia, or any other woman.
How could I, after what my own sweet Isabelle had done to me? Still, I shouldn't have ignored your stepmother. It wasn't her fault I couldn't care about her. You must try to make up for my wrong. Try to honor her and put up with her pampered son. Remember, your first loyalty must be to your own."
"I'll remember. Where will Angus send me? There is time for you to tell me," he persisted. He was deliberately stalling so that he would have a few more minutes with his father. "Angus could have been killed before he reached the forest."
"It would not matter. Do you think I would entrust such important orders to only one man? I'm not foolish. I told others what was to be done."
"Let me hear the command from my laird."
Donald relented. "There's only one man I trust, and you must go to him. Tell him what took place here today."
"Do I tell him everything you have told me?"
"Do I trust him?"
"You do," he replied. "He'll know what's to be done. You must seek his protection first, then order him to train you in his image. Demand your right, boy. Pledge that you'll be his brother until the day you die.
He won't fail you. Go now. Go to Alec Kincaid."
Connor was stunned by the order. "He's your hated enemy, Father. You cannot mean to send me to him."
"I do mean to," his father replied in a hard, unyielding voice. "Alec Kincaid has become the most powerful force in all the Highlands. He's also a good and honorable man, and you need his strength."
Connor was still having difficulty accepting the duty his father had just thrust upon him. He couldn't stop himself from making another protest.
"But you warred against him."
Donald surprised his son by smiling. " 'Tis the truth I did. My heart wasn't in the fight, though. Kincaid knew that. I tested him sorely and am proud to say I was the nagging thorn in his side. Our lands connect to the east, and so it was a natural inclination of mine to take some of his. He wouldn't let me have it, of course. Still, he understood. Had he not, all of us would be dead by now."
"He is that powerful?"
"He is. Be sure to show him my sword. Leave the blood upon the blade so Kincaid will see it."
"Father, none of the MacAlisters will follow me if I go to their enemy."
"You will do as I command," his father said. "You're too young to understand, and so you must trust my judgment. I want your promise that you will go to Kincaid now."
Donald nodded. "The time has come for you to bid me goodbye. We've dallied long enough, and I've put off dying for as long as I dare. Even now I can feel myself slipping into sleep."
Connor tried, but he couldn't seem to make himself let go of his father's hand.
"I will miss you," he whispered.
"And I, you."
"I love you, Father."
"Warriors do not speak of such feelings. I love you too, son, but I won't be telling you so."
He squeezed Connor's hand as a way of softening his rebuke, and finally closed his eyes. He was ready to let death have him, for he had seen the fire burning bright in Connor's eyes, and he knew he would be avenged. What more could a father ask?
Donald MacAlister died a few minutes later, still clinging to his son's hand. He died as he had lived, with honor, dignity, and on his own stubborn terms.
Connor lingered by his father's side for as long as he could, until he heard someone whispering to him from behind. He turned to see a young soldier struggling to sit up. Connor couldn't remember his name, and from the distance separating them, he couldn't tell how serious his injuries were. He motioned to the soldier to stay where he was, then turned back to his father. He picked up the sword resting on his chest, bowed his head in prayer for his father's soul, and then crawled away, clutching the treasured sword to his heart. He eased over hot, glowing embers that blistered his arms and the bloody remains of friends, which made his eyes fill with tears.
He finally reached the man who had called out to him and discovered the soldier wasn't fully grown up, after all. Why, he couldn't be more than two or three years older than Connor.
Thankfully, he remembered the soldier's name before reaching him. "Crispin, I thought you dead. Roll onto your back so I may tend your injuries, or you will surely die."
"There isn't time. They came here to kill both your father and you, Connor. Aye, that was their purpose. I heard one of the bastards boast of it to another. Leave before they come back and realize they've failed."
"The enemy rests now. They won't come back until the wine they drink wears off. Do as I command you to do."
Crispin slowly rolled over, visibly grimacing over the pain the movement caused.
"Is your father dead?"
"Yes," Connor answered. "He lived long enough to tell me what I must do. He died in peace."
Crispin began to weep. "My laird is dead."
"Nay, Crispin. Your laird kneels before you."
Connor wouldn't allow him to argue with him, or laugh over his boast, but gave him duty upon duty while he bandaged him. He told the soldier how he could help to repay their enemy for this atrocity, and when Connor was finished binding his wound, he had given the soldier something more powerful than anguish to fill his mind and his heart. He had given him hope.
Although it was difficult because of his size, Connor eventually dragged Crispin to safety. He hid him away in the forest, well-protected by thick branches, and went back to the destruction twice more to drag out two others. One was Angus, the loyal soldier to whom his father had entrusted the duty of instructing his son. The other was a boy Connor's age called Quinlan, who had only just arrived to begin his training the week before. His injuries were severe, and he was in such pain, he begged to be left alone. Connor was deaf to his pleas.
"I decide when you die, Quinlan, not you."
The boy stopped struggling and even tried to help.
Connor desperately wanted to go back again and again to search for more, but the enemy had decided to return before nightfall, and even now he could see the shadows their horses made on the rise below.
He knew he couldn't chance being discovered. He still needed enough time to remove the trail he'd made. He immediately set about doing just that, and once he was satisfied the three he'd hidden away would not be found, he promised to bring help and ordered them to stay alive.
He was finally ready to do his father's bidding. He rode his faithful mount half the distance to Kincaid land, but when he reached the steep ledges, he left the horse behind and climbed over the rock so that he could shorten the way.
Once he reached the flats again, he began to run. He moved over the land with the speed of a young buck for short spurts, and when exhaustion made his legs too weak to continue the grueling pace, he used his father's sword and scabbard as his cane and slowed to a walk until he was able to regain his strength again. He wasn't very strong yet, but his determination was that of ten grown men. He would not fail his father.