Highland Prodigy by Willa Blair

1

SCOTLAND, EARLY SPRING 1536

The clang of heavy broadsword blades against shields, halberds, and axes assaulted Jamie Lathan’s ears. All around him, men fought and swore and bled. But the deafening din didn’t distract him as he thrust through the raider in front of him, pulled his blade free, then raised his shield against another man charging at his side. Calder Erskin, his foster brother and best friend, cut the legs out from under the warrior Jamie fended off, grinned, and turned away to find his next opponent.

Jamie’s reputation as a fierce and dangerous fighter was well-earned. He’d learned on the training ground not to touch an opponent’s skin, else the urge to heal would overwhelm the battle rage that protected him. He fought with sword and shield, dirk and mace at close quarters, and never with bare fists if he could help it.

Calder matched him in size, strength, and skill. They made a formidable fighting pair. No one could get inside their defenses, and all who tried, died.

Now that he had a moment between opponents, and despite the damage he and Calder had done, he realized the MacKyries had been pushed back toward the pass they guarded. Something about this battle felt wrong. Dressed simply and without clan insignia, the raiders had ambushed Jamie’s patrol just outside the pass leading into the MacKyrie glen. In Jamie’s experience, raiders like these usually turned tail and ran after they lost enough men to convince them they could not win. But fighting had been going on longer than usual.

Keeping one eye on potential adversaries, Jamie searched for his foster father. There! Though Donal was older than Jamie’s father, Toran, he wielded his sword as though it weighed nothing, and he was fresh to the battle. His years of experience stood him in good stead. Few men could challenge Jamie, and none save Donal MacNabb had ever bested him.

A sudden cry rent the air just behind Jamie. He spun to see a raider’s sword pierce Calder’s belly. Jamie lunged and cut the attacker’s head from his body, but he’d inflicted terrible damage before Jamie dispatched him. Calder collapsed into a pool of his own blood, hands reflexively covering the wound.

“Ye can fix this, aye, Jamie?” Calder gasped. “God, it hurts!”

Jamie dropped to his knees by Calder’s side and let his sword fall to the ground beside him. His attention split between his instinct to protect his own life and saving his friend’s, he fought for the calm he must have to extend his hidden healing talent into the wound. He took a deep breath and placed both hands on Calder’s abdomen. The energy started to flow as a warm tingle, until he pushed Calder's bloody hands aside and touched the severed flesh. The reflected pain seared his belly, doubling him over. He gritted his teeth, fighting to ignore the agony.

Jamie’s talent did not allow him to block anything he treated from transferring to him. In other battles, he’d learned to withstand the effect, but Calder’s wound was the worst he’d tried to heal. The blood loss was bad enough, but the bowel was cut, spilling poison into Calder’s body, mixing with the blood Jamie needed to save his life.

He swore he wouldn’t quit, no matter how he suffered. He had to stop Calder’s bleeding before he tried to move him away from the fighting. They were vulnerable to attack, but Calder needed his help here and now.

Vaguely aware of Donal and others surrounding them, forming a defensive ring, Jamie focused on his friend. He was slipping away, and Jamie could not work fast enough to get ahead of the damage.

“Calder! Stay with me, damn ye. Why did ye let him get inside your guard?”

“Save me,” Calder mouthed, voiceless in the din around them.

If Jamie hadn’t been looking right at his lips, he never would have known he’d tried to say anything. Then he slumped, unconscious, before Jamie could take his face in his hands, to tell him he would save him, and make him understand.

Jamie didn’t know whether Calder passed out from shock or the loss of so much blood. He needed to focus, but battling for Calder’s life made him weaker and weaker. The world around him kept fading to black every time he touched his friend.

A rough hand gripped his shoulder and pulled him off of Calder’s body. Jamie retained the presence of mind to whip around and slash with his dirk. But Donal MacNabb was too well-seasoned a fighter to fall for that. He danced out of the way before Jamie could finish the turn. Jamie’s view of his foster father and the battle raging around him spun.

“Leave off, lad. He’s gone. Ye canna save him and ye’ll get yerself killed. We’ve kept the bastards away from ye, but we canna stay any longer. We’re pulling back into the glen. Come away.”

“Nay. I’ll no leave him. He’s still alive.” He reached toward his friend and extended his healing sense again, even though he feared he was close to losing both Calder’s life and his own.

He heard Donal swear, then something hit the back of his head. The world went black and stayed that way.

* * *

Jamie woke up.He lurched up, reaching for Calder at the same moment he realized where he was—in his chamber in the MacKyrie keep. Not at the battle. Not at Calder’s side. Instead, in a chair across the chamber, his foster father sat, regarding him.

“Ye decided to rejoin us, aye? Good. Yer da would never let me live it down if I’d let ye die on the battlefield trying to save another who was as dead as makes no difference.”

“Where is he?” Jamie sat up and swung his legs off the bed, determined to find Calder. The room spun. He became aware of a throbbing ache on the back of his head. He reached back and found a lump. “Ye hit me!” He forced himself to his feet, gratified to see Donal do the same.

“Aye. Ye nearly killed yerself over Calder Erskin, and ye were about to take the rest of us with ye. The raiders saw us protecting ye and were circling, getting ready to come at us from all sides. We wouldha been cut off from the pass. Whoever leads them is nay fool.”

“So ye let Calder die?”

“He was gone, lad. Ye ken that, or ye will once ye stop and think.”

“Ye let him die,” Jamie repeated, advancing on Donal. “I could have saved him.”

“Ye are more like yer mother than ye want to admit,” Donal said in an aggrieved tone, refusing to give ground as Jamie advanced.

“I’ve heard the tale. This is no’ the same.”

“’Tis exactly the same,” Donal insisted. “Yer da had to pull yer mother off of her brother or his death would have taken her, too. Ye ken that, and yet ye nearly did the same daft thing.”

“’Tis no’ daft to save the life of a friend. A brother.”

“I ken it, lad, and I’m sorry. He was yer friend… but ye ken he was gone.”

Jamie’s throat filled and he fought down tears. “He told me to save him.”

Donal looked away and swallowed. “Nay lad. He kenned he was done for. He didna want ye to risk yer own life and the rest of our men.” Donal's jaw tightened, and his gaze dropped. “He learned that lesson better than ye, lad.”

“Sorry to disappoint ye,” Jamie growled, his grief turning suddenly back to fury. He wasn’t sorry at all. Grieving would have to wait. First he needed to punish the man who’d let his friend die. He clenched his fists over his belly, unsure whether the stabbing pain there came from the fury that painted Donal in a red haze, or remnants of Calder’s injury. “I should flatten ye.”

Donal glared at him. “Ye could try, but ye willna win, and ye ken it. I trained ye. Dinna try me, lad.” He gestured toward the bed. “Sit yerself down and use that pounding head of yers before I have to knock more sense into ye.”

Instead, Jamie pointed toward the door. “Get out, ye bastard.”

“Ye havena earned the right to call me names. Sit.” Donal shoved Jamie’s chest, forcing him back until the back of his knees connected with the edge of the bed and he sat.

But he didn’t stay there. He surged up and swung, intending to catch Donal under the chin with his fist. Donal’s head snapped back out of the way, and for a moment, Jamie thought he’d succeeded in knocking him out with one punch. He should have known better. Donal shoved, and Jamie’s equilibrium deserted him. He fell.

Before he knew it, he lay flat on his back on the bed, waking up for the second time. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but it couldn’t have been long. Donal sat where he’d been when Jamie woke up the first time.

“Despite that temper of yers, ye are one of the best fighters I’ve ever trained,” Donal said, rubbing his chin, “But swinging at me when ye are half out of yer head doesna work. Ye missed me.”

“I’ll get ye next time.”

“Never forget, I’m better. But if ye still want to fight me once ye have given it some thought, find me.” Then he stood and left the chamber.

Jamie pushed upright, but his head spun. When he tried to stand, his legs gave way. Instead, he sat and thought about the battle and recalled things he’d been only dimly aware of as he tried to save his friend. The circle of defenders around them. The battle raging only a few feet away. Jamie had to admit Donal was right. They would have been cut off from the glen. With no help nearby, they would have been slaughtered.

Jamie forced himself to take deep breaths to slow his pounding heart and ease his aching head. Donal had done what he deemed necessary to save the most lives, even though he knew what leaving Calder would mean to Jamie, and how it would damage their relationship.

Donal’s connection to the Lathans went back most of his life. He’d fostered with Jamie’s grandfather and stayed as Lathan’s arms master at his request. Donal was there when Jamie’s mother lost her brother in the same way Jamie lost Calder. She had hated Jamie’s father for a while, but had come to see that he’d saved her life.

Jamie heaved a sigh. Donal had saved his, too. And Donal got his men back into MacKyrie territory where they knew every rock, rill, and hollow, and where his men could pick off the raiders if they dared follow.

Jamie got to his feet, finally steady. The best thing for the sensations filling his body at the moment was another good fight. He’d go to the training ground and work off his anguish there. But not until after he got rid of the lump on the back of his head and the pain in his head and belly. He was about to use his healing talent to take care of himself when someone knocked softly on the door. “Come,” he called out and reached for calm he didn’t yet feel. Only one person would dare his temper.

Ellie, Donal’s wife, the MacKyrie laird and Seer, opened the door and stood, leaning on the frame, studying him. Her long dark hair, bound to the side, trailed down to her hip against the wooden doorframe. Silver streaks glinted that had not been visible when he first came to foster, all those years before.

“Ye ken he’s right.” Her voice was soft and sure.

Jamie always pictured velvet over steel when he heard her speak. This woman could make him more nervous than going up against her husband Donal, but remnants of Jamie’s anger still burned in his blood, making him bold. “Ye would say that.”

“Aye. But he is.” She stepped into the chamber. “Ye’d be dead with yer friend and more of our precious few men.” Her serene expression slipped for a moment as she glanced aside. “Even him.”

The thought of the Seer knowing and grieving the hour of her beloved husband’s death froze the blood in Jamie’s veins. “Ye canna ken that. Ye werena there.” Despite his earlier fury, Jamie knew he would grieve him, too, and hoped that day was long in coming.

“Ye forget who… and what I am.”

Jamie lowered his gaze to her hands, now clenched at her sides, and watched as she forced them open. “Never,” he told her. No more than he could forget who and what he was. Or what his own mother was.

“Then hear me. This is a turning point for ye. Ye will go from here—angry, aye. Grieving. Of course. I ken that. But ye will find another path when ye do. Another way to be of value to those ye care about.”

“What does that mean?”

“Live yer life, Jamie Lathan.” She turned back to the door, then looked over her shoulder and smiled at him for the first time. “Dinna be so certain ye ken who ye are. Ye will find out as it happens.”

* * *

He left the next morning,after the last handful of dirt had been dropped onto Calder’s grave.

The Seer had begged him to stay another day to rest his head and his temper, then told him if he was careful, he would not encounter any of the men they’d fought the day before. Jamie believed her. He’d never known her to be wrong in all the five years he’d fostered with them, nor during the visits since for holidays or battles.

Donal approached and grasped his forearm before Jamie finished checking the contents of the packs on his horse. “I’m sorry to see ye leave us like this,” Donal told him. “But Ellie tells me ’tis for the best, and if ye keep yer temper under control, ye will do well.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Jamie told him, and meant it.

“Tell yer da I’ll pay a visit when I can. And kiss yer ma for me. For us,” he added, pulling the Seer to his side and wrapping a muscled arm over her shoulders.

She smiled up at her husband, then turned the smile to Jamie. “Safe travels, lad. Ye are yet a young man. Ye will learn much in the next few years.”

Jamie nodded and tied closed the last pack while he tried to come up with a response to that. Ellie MacKyrie had not stinted the supplies for his long journey home, but he knew better than to ask for more detail in her foretelling. Still, he appreciated her attempt to send him off with good wishes.

Instead, Jamie mounted and rode away from the keep before the lump in his throat could grow any larger. Once he got into the trees and out of sight, he wiped his eyes, annoyed that his emotions could betray him this way, first with anger, now with regret. He took a deep breath. The Seer’s promise was still vague, but perhaps more specific than her usual pronouncement. Jamie pictured her. Would she have smiled when she delivered it if he didn’t have much to look forward to in the next year?

Days were growing longer, so he rode hard, stopping to make camp and quiet his mind through the short nights, resting himself and his mount against the next day’s long road. Finally, he got a glimpse between some hills of the Aerie on its high tor. Home.

He reined in and just looked, thinking about the people he loved there, and those he’d left behind.

Would the Aerie be home for much longer? The Seer’s words stayed with him. What other path would he find? And how would he be of use? As usual, her words were cryptic, as though she forbore giving anyone too much information about their future. Would their path change if she did?

Her talent, like his mother’s and his, could not be explained. Only used, something Jamie did as seldom as possible. He was a warrior, not a healer, except when a life was at risk on the battlefield.

Like Calder’s.

The image remained as clear in his mind as if he still leaned over his friend, fighting to save him. He’d never forget it. Never lose that sensation of life slipping away faster than he could stop it bleeding out of Calder’s body. He’d saved Lathan lives on many battlefields, and when he could safely do so, those of their allies. But he hadn’t been able to save Calder's.

He vowed never to use his talent again. He was and would be a warrior—one of the best. Nothing more.

Though his fury had abated, he had not forgiven Donal that blow to the back of his head. The Seer’s words made him wonder if the next time Donal called for men to fight MacKyrie’s battles, would Jamie be among them?

Was that what the Seer meant?

He kicked his mount into motion and headed for home. Perhaps he would find answers there.