Bold (The Handfasting) - By Becca St. John

They could all be dead.

Their bodies strewn across battlefields, lifeless.

Like her twin, like Ian.

Maggie MacBede pressed fist to eyes, spun away from her friend and the empty view they shared. She would not cry. It was Cailleach Bheare, bitter old crone of a north wind, who stirred up the tears. There was naught to fear. Her brothers would return.

They would.

Then she would kill them herself.

Seven brothers born, six still alive, and all she could feel was the pain of the loosing. Not that her surviving brothers cared. Och no, not by half. Ian barely in his grave and off the great hulking oafs go to battle. Not once, not twice, but three times in the six months since Ian's death, they leave her to fret and worry; would they return by foot or bier?

Caitlin moved up beside her, slid an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t fuss now.” She crooned.

Not fuss? “We’ve been here since daylight, it’s nearly evening now. They should be here. The messenger said so.”

“They will be,” Caitlin soothed. “I promise, and the thrill of it will be worth the wait.”

Maggie snorted, wrapped her plaid close as she turned back to a bleak view of dark heather and a black ribbon of river threading its way through a valley shadowed by ragged hillsides.

No hint of warriors.

“Maggie,” Caitlin sidled up beside her. “Don’t you think you’d be knowing if they weren’t coming? Just like with young Ian.”

Young Ian? Maggie looked to the gloomy valley, too tired to find the words she needed, though she knew she had to. “Ian was different. He was my twin. We shared dreams. I never had that with my other brothers.”

“Never once with the others?” Caitlin frowned. Her husband Alec, one of the men they watched for, was Maggie’s older brother.

“No.” Maggie raised her hand to shield her eyes from a last streak of sun as she studied the horizon.

Caitlin followed her gaze. “You knew when Ian wasn’t coming back, Maggie. I was there. You crumbled as if that sword had pierced your own belly. I’ve no doubt you would do the same for Alec or any of your other brothers.”

“Enough!” Maggie faced her squarely. “Ian and I were the youngest in a family of strong men. We needed that closeness or the others would run right over our wants. It’s you, Caitlin, who will know when Alec goes. Not me.”

“He won’t go though.” Caitlin argued.

“Don’t be foolish.” Maggie snapped. “Alec is a warrior and warriors die.” She slapped at her chest, where her heart should be. “And all you feel is the pain of the loosing. That’s all Caitlin.” She eased away. “Just sorrow hovering over a pit of numbness.”

“Ah, Maggie.”

They both fell silent as the autumn chill seeped through layers of dress and plaid, through the soles of boots clear into the heart. Finally, Caitlin shook Maggie’s shoulder. “We’ve been here too long for naught,” she said, “Let’s go back to the keep.”

“Aye. No sense waitin’ and freezin’ when the Bold has no care for the kin of his men.” She grumbled as she brushed at her plaid.

“Now Maggie, you shouldn’t be talking about the Laird that way.” Caitlin started to sign the cross. Maggie grabbed her hands, stilled them.

“Stop it. He’s not a bloody saint, Caitlin. He was the one who called Ian to his death, for a battle that was not even ours to fight.”

“He’s a great, grand warrior, he is.” Caitlin countered.

Plaid pulled tight over her head, Maggie closed out the cold. “If he’s so mighty and great, why does he send messengers to ask our clan to fight? Why can’t he come himself?”

As there was no answer to that, Maggie argued on. “Coward outside of battle, that’s what he is, to send others to call men to death!” Warmth of conviction coursed through her. “I know his kind, Caitlin.” She shook a finger at Caitlin’s back, raised her voice as the girl headed up the hill. “He’ll be a great scarred and ugly man who feasts on wee bairnes for breakfast. He’ll only have one eye, the other a grotesque pocket of twisted and puckered flesh from some ancient spear wound.

“Life means nothing to a man like that. Not without conflict.” Anger spurred her up the steep climb. “I would love to give him conflict, I would.”

Surprised by the lack of reprimand, for no one disparaged the Great, Grand Laird MacKay, Maggie looked up to see Caitlin at the crest of the hill, still as a statue. She turned,