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Claimed by the Highlander (#1, The Highlands Warring series)

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O N E

Glasgow

Reade MacTaggart had thought he liked Glasgow for about two weeks. It was Scottish, after all, and after his travels through the South, it was a blessing to eat food the way he liked it best, to talk with people who didn’t stare when he forgot to smooth down his accent, and where he could get a proper drink or three if he was so inclined. It was a wild town, full of people displaced by the war between Edward Longshanks and the lairds of Scotland, full to bursting with people out to make their fortune, save their lives, and see what might be left after Edward of England and Robert the Bruce began their unsteady peace.

In two weeks’ time, however, he had also found it to be cramped, dirty, and full to the brim with men who had lost one fight or another and were looking to get their own back, whatever that meant.

All right, Aidan, I’ve been in the damned Lowlands since before Christmas. If you want more, I’ll send you south myself and stay snug at Glen Farren for summer.

Reade knew that his older brother hadn’t asked him to go south lightly, and as the heir to the clan head, doing so might have proved costlier than Clan MacTaggart could bear.

“It’s going to have to be you, Reade, and sorry I am for it,” his older brother had said.

“Of course, it has to be me. You’d lose your temper inside of a day, and we’d hear of you hanging off the Tower walls, wouldn’t we?”

“Just be careful. We can’t spare a one of us, and much as I would love to be free of your stupid jokes, Clan MacTaggart needs you, little brother.”

Reade had left almost as soon as word had come north of Robert the Bruce’s capitulation to Longshanks. There was too much going on in the South for Clan MacTaggart to stay ignorant, and so Reade had gone.

He had learned a great deal, guessed at some more, and the rest Aidan could figure out, Reade decided with a grin. Let his older brother do some work after Reade had been masquerading as a gallowglass and seeing the South. Blank-shield soldiers didn’t have the best reputation, but they went nearly everywhere, and since people seemed to think they were universally stupid, they talked in front of them.

No, another night, maybe two after this damnable weather clears up, and then I’ll be off to the North. North and home.

Reade was thinking that another night at the Cock and Compass would be fine, if cramped, when he heard the sound of a scuffle down an alley. Mostly, it wasn’t worth a broken head to find out what was going on down Glasgow’s dark alleys, but something made him turn his steps to investigate. From the volume of the sound, he expected to see two men quarreling over some insult or another, but instead, two men were menacing someone in a recessed doorway, looking incredibly irritated and angry.

“All right now, you come out of there and give us what we asked for. We ain’t going to hurt you if you do that, word of honor.”

To Reade’s surprise, a large stick came out of the doorway and swung at the two men. One dodged, but it caught the other on the shoulder, giving him a hefty blow and making him bellow.

“Come out here right now before I take that damned stick from you and shove it in that mouth of yours!”

“I won’t!”

“You will, and you won’t like what happens if we have to make you, you little trollop!”

Reade might still have kept going, because if he had learned one thing on his travels, it was to mind his own damn business, but the voice that defied the two men so boldly belonged to a little girl, high and piercing, and he was a lot of things, but he wasn’t going to let a child get koshed about by a pair of grown men.

This wasn’t a matter for the sword at his side. Instead, he simply reached for the man closest to him, grasping him by the shoulder and swinging him into the wall so hard he dropped to his knees. The second man turned just in time to catch Reade’s fist in his face, and despite himself, Reade grinned. It wasn’t civilized to like the call to battle as much as he did, and he had heard far too much about warmongering Scots since coming south, but there was a grain of truth to it, at least as far as he was concerned. He never felt as alive as when he was in a fight, and when the second man roared and lunged for him, Reade laughed out loud even as he stepped out of the way and kicked hard at the man’s legs.

Might as well get all of this out while I’m away from home, I suppose...

The man who lunged for him was bigger than he was, but far slower, and Reade had always been known for his quickness on his feet. Another few passes, and the man simply fled, his face black and blue from his encounters with Reade’s fists.

He was just turning back to the doorway that had started all of this when there was a blur of motion in the corner of his eye. The man he had stunned had not stayed stunned, and he rose up with a cobblestone in his hand, ready to crack Reade’s head open.

Reade was probably fast enough to evade his attacker, but it would have been a near thing. He was braced for the man’s wild blow to connect at least glancingly with his head, to reel back and then fling himself at the man, but with a wild cry, a skinny little thing came out of the doorway, a length of wood held high.

That’s a vicious one and no mistake about it. Reade blinked in surprise, and then she was swinging her makeshift club down on the man’s head with a strength that seemed to belie her slender frame.

The man was so large that for a moment, Reade thought the blow was going to bounce right off of his skull, but then, after a moment when all three of them were frozen in place, he groaned and sank first to his knees and then thumped hard to the ground.

“Didn’t expect that,” Reade muttered, and then he flashed a grin at the little girl with the club.

Not really a little girl at all, he realized belatedly, for all that she was so slender. Despite her childish squeak earlier, she had to be at least nineteen or twenty, with blue eyes that flashed like a dangerous storm.

“Well, we should leave while the leaving’s good, lass.”

To his shock, she stared into his eyes, and he felt something close around his chest, around his heart. Somehow, she had reached out an invisible hand and squeezed him tight enough that he could barely get his breath, barely breathe at all. A chill shook his body, and Reade almost took a step back in fright. There was something uncanny happening in this moment, something that would change everything.

Then the girl toppled forward, and with a curse, Reade lunged forward to catch her before she hit the ground. She felt as light as a feather in his arms, and he found himself wondering when in the world she had last eaten.

Reade’s head jerked up when he heard shouting coming from one of the houses nearby. They mostly likely weren’t friends of the gentlemen he and the girl had dispatched so very efficiently, and they may not have cared even if they were, but he hadn’t lived this long and done everything that he had by taking needless chances.

“All right, lass, I suppose we’re friends for a little longer.”

It did cross his mind to stack her in some out of the way corner and take his leave, but everything in his body roared against it. He decided to call it simple human decency, because he had been in Glasgow for a while now, and he had an idea that the local street toughs would have all sorts of unsavory ideas for a girl they found unconscious.

It was more than that, however, and he fought down the strange and eldritch sensation that had occurred when they first laid eyes on each other. Something in him, something that spoke the same language as the Northern winds and defended what it owned with teeth rather than with the sword, refused. Somehow, this girl had become his, and there was nothing in the world that was going to persuade him to let her go.

She doesn’t weigh much more than wet cat. He lifted her in his arms, making his steady way down the alley and away from their attackers. As he moved, several drops of cold rain struck him. The storm that had been brewing for the last few hours had arrived. The rain went from a few bare drops to a torrent in a few moments, and Reade walked faster.


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