The Storm in his Highland Heart by Kenna Kendrick

Chapter One

The silence inside Kindrochit castle was deafening.

It was as if all the souls within were waiting with bated breath. Outside, the night air was cold and still in the autumn moonlight. Though it was well into the small hours of the morning, many a window of the castle blazed with light, from the Laird’s quarters to the servants' chambers. As a shrill scream of raw agony rent the stillness of the night, more candles ignited until the whole castle seemed ablaze.

In the highest part of the Laird’s tower, Kadrick Macinroy paced back and forth outside the chamber he shared with his beloved wife, Annot. Sweet Annot, with her gold-spun curls and her sweet, trusting smile. The young Laird was in quite a state, crossing in front of the heavy wooden door repeatedly, his hands balled into fists, his stomach churning with hope and dread.

At twenty-two, Kadrick had only been a husband for two years but considered it the greatest achievement of his life. Though he was a warrior who had bathed himself in glory on the battlefield many a time since his youth, it was winning Annot’s heart that made him a man, that made him worthy. Not once had Kadrick faced such fear and worry so deep down in his soul, not even before a battle. His mother told him once as a boy, just before his younger sister Lorna was born, that childbirth was to a woman what war was to men, the ultimate battle they had to face.

Annot was strong in her own way. She was tender like a spring blossom, but she was sturdy and could weather any storm. The Laird watched in disbelief throughout her pregnancy as his wife began to grow in beauty and grace. She was already the most beautiful woman in Scotland, yet she was more lovely to him day by day.

Kadrick had lain beside her many a night, tracing his fingers over her bulging belly and feeling the stirrings of the children within. Annot was sure that she was carrying twins early on, as there were many twins in her own Clan. Soon enough, Kadrick’s physician admitted that she might be correct in her guess. Annot’s stomach was twice the size of any woman the doctor had examined, and there was plenty of movement within her womb from what seemed to be two infants. Though Annot was joyous when she heard the news, it had worried Kadrick though he’d hidden it. His mother’s words to him as a small boy always stuck with him, and as a man, he could not help but fear what the birth of two children might be like for his petite wife.

He froze suddenly as the creak of the door indicated someone was coming out. It was a chambermaid; her face was pale and sweaty, and her eyes were round as saucers. She hurried out and shut the door quickly so that Kadrick couldn’t see inside. The room was hot and smoky from the blazing hearth, and the vast supply of candles lit within. Just as the door closed, another scream of horrendous pain rang through the castle, penetrating the thick stone walls so even the stableboys could hear. The maid jumped at the sound and squeezed her eyes shut tight. She seemed ready to bolt. Kadrick turned to her, frantic, hands extended as if to shake her, though he did not touch her.

“Eubha! Tell me what news o’ my Lady! Dae ye ken how she fares?”

“Laird Macinroy! I-I”

She stammered and looked up at him like a doe in the sight of an archer. Kadrick stifled the urge to curse or frighten her more. She seemed plenty frightened enough that made a terror creep up his spine. A fear he’d never experienced even when he’d nearly been decapitated by a Sassenach Knight. Unlike his late father, Kadrick did not scream at serving girls and pummel his young grooms. Though it was Annot they loved best, he tried to do right by them as their Laird and Chief. Clan Macinroy had prospered under Kadrick’s father, even if they’d suffered under his thumb. Kadrick hoped to repay them all for the years they’d had to live in fear of their former master, and so he was careful never to be cruel or unkind. Even at this moment, when he wanted to bash his fists into the stone walls out of sheer frustration, Kadrick remained calm. Only a slight unsteadiness in his hands gave away the storm raging within.

“Never mind it now, lass. Can ye go within an’ fetch me out Lorna? Tell her that I must-”

“No, my Laird, I cannae!” Eubha gulped and shook her head. “Milady told me that I was tae tell ye she will not tarry a moment away from Lady Annot’s side.”

That sounded like his sister. He turned back towards the door. Without asking the serving girl where she was headed, Kadrick put a hand to the handle and turned it, stepping into the chamber. According to tradition, no man was to enter until the birthing room, and the woman giving birth was cleansed and blessed by a priest. Normally after the business was concluded, the father was allowed in as a lone exception. Though his wife’s battle was not finished, Kadrick could no longer leave her to do it without him, not after he’d seen the look of fright on Eubha’s young face. The girl was nineteen, and this was her first birth, but her eyes told a tale more complicated than the simple fear of a novice. They held a look he’d seen in battle many a time, the look of a soul that has just witnessed hell on earth.

“Shhh, shhh, now my bonnie one. Take a breath, aye, now there ye have it. An’ another. An’ another. Deep breaths Annot. Come nae, don’t be frightened.”

Lorna was nineteen, but their mother had often brought her into the birthing rooms of her fellow clanswoman since she was a child. Like their mother before her, Lorna was fascinated by the craft and practice of midwives and wise women, the old healing arts of the stillroom, and the women’s quarters. Their father had often mocked her as a fool and sometimes called her a witch in his foul tempers, but their late mother would have made a fine barber-surgeon if she’d been born a man. Lorna was no different, and she’d been beside Annot since her first suspicions that she might be with child. Kadrick watched in stupefied silence as his sister squatted between his wife’s legs, her forearms covered in blood and her furrowed brow slick with sweat. She looked up at him once and then twice, all the while cooing to Annot and calling out orders to the serving women attending her. The Midwife was crushing something in her mortar and pestle. Some of the maids were looking at him agog as if they were shocked, he would deign to enter this sacred, feminine world. Father Kerr’s eyes were squeezed shut as he fiddled with his rosary and mumbled what Kadrick believed to be the lord’s prayer. Kerr was an old man who had seen his fair share of death and sorrow, but it was well known that he was like a father to Annot, who was a devout and pious woman and a goodly Lady to all. Kadrick watched a tear fall down Father Kerr’s cheek, and it spurred him to action. He quickly made his way to Annot’s bedside, where she writhed in pain, her own eyes shut tight against the bright lights that blazed all around her.

Kadrick reached for her hand, and when he touched her, those eyes flew open, dark blue like the depths of a calm sea. For a brief instant, the pain and terror fled, and she smiled up at him, her hair damp and limp, clinging to her face. Though he was happy to see her smile, Kadrick could not help but look back at Lorna and the bright red blood that seemed to cover most of the feather-stuffed mattress.

“Kadrick-”

Her voice was weak, and before she could continue, her whole body contorted with pain, and her face screwed up again. She tried to stop it but couldn’t and let out a wail of utter misery and pain.

“Hush nae ma love.” He stroked his wife’s face, resting his palm against her left cheek. Annot instinctively nuzzled into the caress, as she’d done a thousand times before. “I’m here. And I’m so very proud of ye. Rest now, just rest. Breathe deep like Lorna told ye. Aye, aye, here’s a good lass.”

Just then, the midwife returned to Annot’s bedside. She was slathering some grey concoction on her fingertips.

“Shepheard’s purse.” Lorna stood and let the woman take her place. She motioned for Kadrick to join her at a washbasin near the hearth. “Twill help to stem tha bleedin’.”

Kadrick hurried over to her side, where she was washing blood from her hands and forearms before patting them dry with clean linen. She wiped her brow and dried it, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths.

“One o’ the twins is trying tae come feet first.” Lorna met his eyes after a moment of silence, and he could see she was afraid as well. “Breach births are dangerous enough with only one bairn, but two….”

Kadrick felt his heart drop. What was she telling him?

“Wha can ye do then?” He asked frantically. “How can ye help her?”

Lorna covered her face with the linen, and Kadrick was horrified to find that she was crying into it. He shook his head, taking a step back. Lorna didn’t stop him, didn’t speak, simply kept crying into the linen. Her body was wracked with sobs after a moment, and Kadrick had to leave her side. He couldn’t stand to see her crying as if Annot had no hope.

When Kadrick turned back to his wife, he saw the midwife, with her hand inside Annot’s womb to twist the babe around. Annot began to scream so loudly that her voice began to break as if flaying the muscles within her throat. She cried out to God, to her mother, and to Kadrick. He rushed to her side, taking both her hands in his as unwanted tears slid down his cheeks and fell to the soaked neckline of her night shift. The midwife finished her grim business, and Annot went limp for a moment. Kadrick wanted to pick her up off the bed and hold her close, but he dared not. She was so pale, looked so fragile.

“My love,” she looked so sad now, the sorrow in her eyes touching the core of his being. He would give anything to take this from her, to free her from this pain and sadness. “Come close tae me. Let me kiss yer lips once more.”

He was frightened when their lips met, for her kiss was cold as the grave. Kadrick’s hands began to tremble. He felt the strength nearly give way in his legs, but he held firm.

“Mine own Laird.” She was looking up at his face, smiling again, the sadness all but banished from her eyes. “Oh, how I loved thee for an endless age and shall a thousand more when mine hath passed.”

Kadrick couldn’t help but sputter now, tears flowing freely. Those words were from their wedding vows, the ones he’d spoken to her in the chapel of castle Kindrochit only two years ago. He held her face in his for a moment, shaking his head but unable to reply. When she screamed in pain again, he jumped back, his eyes searching frantically for Lorna.

His sister had returned, no longer sobbing into the linen but at the midwife’s side. Her eyes were wide, and she looked reinvigorated.

“Aye, Annot! One of the babes is coming! Push Annot! Push!”

Kadrick took her hands in his again, finally able to speak as hope came back to him. She opened her eyes and met his. He nodded at her, two sharp nods, eyes homing in on her frightened stare.

“Annot Macinroy, yer the Lady of Kindrochit, the wife of the Chief. Yer my heart and my soul woman, and I will not accept yer surrender! Now push!”

She did. God bless her heart. Kadrick watched as she recouped her strength, and with a gallant effort, Annot bore down, squeezing his hands with an explosive power that didn’t seem possible in her condition. Pride filled his spirit and more hope. Kadrick spotted Lorna and was glad to see that his sister no longer looked despondent but jubilant. Mayhap the worst was past, and soon Annot would be free of her travail, holding two bundles in her arms, all three of them healthy and hale.

“Aye me bonnie bride, our age won’t pass yet! Not until yer an old, gray crone prayin’ tae see yer man dead an’ in tha ground.”

The sound of her laughter made him want to kiss her, so he did, and her lips weren’t as cold as before, or so Kadrick wanted so badly to believe. He smoothed her hair back and felt her bear down again, so he found her hand and urged her on. In the distance, he heard Lorna proclaim both babes were born, but his attention was trained on Annot. Now that the ordeal was done, she fell back against the mattress, breathing a long sigh of relief. Her eyes met his, and all the hope he felt began to fade. She looked so tired as if all her strength had been expended in those last heroic moments. Her grip began to slip from his as if she could not go on. Kadrick was vaguely aware of the cries from behind him, cries of grief and horror. Suddenly he knew. He could not look, could not stand to watch his wife’s blood drain from her as he stood by helplessly. So, his eyes stayed on her beautiful face.

“Kadrick.” Her voice was nothing more than a whisper now. He leaned down to listen, so her words were audible over the growing din in the room. “Promise me you’ll take care of our bairns. Tha’ you’ll tell them stories of their mama, who loved them ever so. Ye must Kadrick, my poor, sweet man. I have loved thee for an endless age...”

Kadrick had seen a man’s eyes as the life fled his body but never imagined he would stare into Annot’s eyes as her soul departed from this life to the next. The Priest was beside him now, trying to administer the last rights of the dying, though it seemed to him that the time was now past. Annot was dead.

Though it felt as if someone had run him through with a dull blade, Kadrick knew he had to be strong now. Though it pained him greatly, the Laird of Kindrochit took a step back and let Father Kerr perform the rites. He murmured a prayer to the Virgin and wiped the tears from his eyes, though his whole body was shaking, and his legs felt weak. He turned to Lorna, trying to be brave like Annot, determined to begin right then to honor her last wishes. He would love his children, their children, with all the love he could no longer give to his wife, his dearest heart. His sister’s face was enough to turn his blood cold as he realized the chambers were not filled with squalls of tiny babes. Kadrick suddenly understood that even in the tumult, he’d heard no bairns crying out for succor. The notion was too terrible to fathom after losing Annot, too terrible to consider. Lorna stepped closer to him.

“Come Kadrick we-”

He snatched his hand away, looking around the room at the gathered women as they cried and covered their faces. The midwife wrapped up two bundles and placed them into the wooden cradles Kadrick had helped to craft.

“Where are the children!” he bellowed out, his deep, booming voice filled with pain and woe. “I want to see our children! I am yer Laird, and I will see my Annot’s bairns!”

Lorna’s eyes were filled with tears as she approached her brother again. This time Father Kerr was with her, whispering soothing words of God into his ear. Suddenly his vision began to darken, and he felt a tumult of rage and sorrow begin to churn within him. It felt like bloodlust, only there was no enemy to fight, no foe to vanquish, only his wife’s dead body and those of his two children lost to him forever. The mighty Laird fell to his knees. His tortured voice cut through the silent night until he collapsed upon the floor, spinning into a fitful sleep, full of nightmares and demons that grasped at the edges of his mortal soul.