A Highlander to Remember (Preview)
May 12, 1551
Seth’s hands tightened on the reins as he spurred his horse faster. Its heaving pants filled Seth’s ears as he ignored the shouts of riders chasing from behind. Alicia’s head was buried against his back, her fingers digging into his sides, desperately clinging to him to keep from falling. Rain pelted Seth’s face, seeping through his pallid skin and his belted plaid, his body trembling in earnest as he grasped the reins. He clenched his jaw to keep from trembling, focusing all his attentions on the road ahead. The wind whipped his dark hair into his eyes, and the rain blurred his gaze.
Seth swiped his hair with a shaking hand and reclaimed the reins quickly as he felt his body teeter forward. He squinted into the darkness. The storm hid the stars and the moon, offering no light. They were riding through the dark with no sense of direction. Seth only prayed he knew the way. Trees on either side reached for them, clawing at his arms and legs, and tangling themselves in Alicia’s hair.
“Seth!” Alicia cried against the storm.
Seth swallowed the fear crawling its way up his throat. He wiped the droplets from his face, his eyes widening on the blood speckling his fingertips. He ground his teeth at the painful itch in his skin, but he didn’t stop.
“Hold on!” Seth shouted over the rain and the thundering of hooves growing louder from behind.
“Seth!” Alicia shouted, her voice shrill, her arms hugging him tighter. “I’m scared.”
Seth’s brows pinched together, his heart hammering in his throat, his stomach twisting with worry. He didn’t know if they could escape the riders. They were adept at tracking animals and thieves during night and day. They knew these woods better than him. Seth had thought there would be more time, that Alicia’s father would not have noticed their disappearance until the morn. He had thought wrong. Even if they did escape Laird Anderson’s men, Seth did not know who would take them in. Seth and Alicia hadn’t taken much—only the clothes on their backs and enough coin to lodge them for a mere day or two.
He hadn’t planned well, but he knew if they didn’t leave together this night, they would never see each other again. Seth couldn’t bear the thought of it.
He only knew he wanted to be with her, and there was no way he would permit their clans to stand in his way.
“Stop!” a rider called after them. “We command ye to stop!”
Seth turned his horse sharply to the left, moving off the road and deeper into the woods. The horse whinnied and Alicia shrieked as it jumped, barely evading a fallen tree. Seth grasped her hand, his fingers lacing with hers.
“Do not be afraid, my Alicia,” Seth called out against the storm. “I will protect ye; I swear it, I wi-”
The horse shrieked as it tripped over something in the ground, and Seth choked on his words as he felt his body suddenly swing forward. His leg snapped, and his eyes stung. His mouth opened, but no sound escaped as his body hit the ground and continued sliding down. His ears rang, or was it the sound of the horse shrieking as it scrambled to remain afoot?
“Seth!” Alicia screamed, her body sliding further down, towards the edge of nothingness. He could barely make out her figure in the darkness, but the fear in her voice left chills running up and down his spine.
Seth clung to her hand, his whole body quivering with pain as he edged towards the cliff. The sounds of the horse scrambling made him queasy.
“Don’t let go!” Alicia cried, her hand slipping from his hold.
Seth gritted his teeth, his grip tightening. The pain in his leg and his hand sent fire roaring through him. They edged closer. Nothing could stop their descent.
“Seth, I lo-“
They fell over the edge, and her hand slipped from his grasp.
“Alicia!” Seth shouted, hearing her screams over the raging storm.
Seth didn’t understand what was happening, only that one moment he was flying, and the next his body struck something hard and began rolling. He couldn’t stop rolling. His left hand caught onto something, trying to stop his movement. Tears stung his eyes, and pain scorched through his fingertips, making him release whatever it was he was clinging to. His body was like a rock, rolling and rolling, unable to stop. His left hand struck something hard, and he gasped. The pain radiated up his arm and through his shoulder.
He tried to cry out, but all sound escaped him. Darkness filled his vision as his body went numb; until finally, he blinked the pain away and found himself staring up at the dark sky.
“Seth McGill!” someone shouted.
“Lady Anderson!” another called.
Seth groaned as he tried to lift his body, but his muscles ached and pulled, making it difficult for him to move. He couldn’t feel his leg. His right hand grasped at the ground, trying to push his body up, but it was difficult without the use of his other hand.
“Alicia,” he groaned, turning his head towards his injured hand.
His eyes widened, finding it covered in blood. Something was screaming in the distance. A shudder went down his spine as his eyes caught sight of his horse crying not too far from him. It kept trying to stand, yet it couldn’t. The darkness shrouded its injuries.
But where was Alicia?
“Alicia!” Seth shouted, his eyes prickling with tears as he looked to his right, finding a still body not too far from him.
Lightning flashed in the sky, and light fell upon them, followed by a loud rumble from the heavens above. His breath hitched, his eyes prickling with tears at the sight of Alicia, the side of her head covered in blood, her red hair caked with it. Her eyes closed.
“Alicia,” Seth sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks as he attempted to crawl towards her. She’s asleep, he told himself as he slowly pulled his body towards her.
Another flash of lightning displayed Alicia, closer this time, her body completely still, her green eyes closed off to the world.
“Alicia,” Seth wailed as he reached for her, needing to touch her hair, caress her cheek, feel her lips upon his just one more time.
“Seth McGill,” he heard one of the riders murmur as he felt a touch on his shoulder.
Several other riders approached. Seth could not make out their faces, nor did he care. His eyes remained focused on Alicia. The horse’s shrieks silenced.
The padding of rain permeated through the air as another crack of lightning flashed.
“Alicia,” Seth murmured, his head aching, his eyes finding it difficult to remain open. “Open yer eyes, my darling.”
But she did not open her eyes, and he could no longer bear the pain. His body went limp, his eyes slowly closing.
July 19, 1557
Seth’s eyes snapped open. His cheeks were wet with tears, his throat raw from screaming. He gasped, wiping the tears from his eyes while quickly sitting up and looking around the room. He was not lying in the grass. Alicia was not next to him. He was back at McGill Castle, in his own room. His blanket rested on the ground, and his pillows were strewn around the mattress as if heavy winds had entered while he slept.
The early morning rays seeped into the room displaying a desk resting near the window and a trunk setting across from his bed. Across the room, the wall glittered under the light, and the McGill crest of the Phoenix in flames caught Seth’s eye. Every morning since returning to this castle, Seth had gazed upon the clan’s crest, trying to decide where the fire ended and the phoenix’s wings began. And every morning he gave up, reminding himself he had better things to do than stare at a bird that meant nothing to him and everything to the McGill clan.
“The phoenix is a sacred bird, Seth,” he recalled his father once saying, long ago when he was a boy of eight summers. “Because when it emerges from the ash, it is more powerful than ever before. Remember that, lad.”
Seth groaned, tearing his gaze away from the crest and running a hand over his face, his head aching from waking so suddenly. Father was a fool, he thought darkly. The McGills are naething like a phoenix, nor am I. His foolishness is the reason why we were so blindsided by the Andersons’ betrayal in the first place. Seth clenched his jaw, remembering the day his father stalked inside his room, his hands fisted, his gaze set in a deep scowl.
“We are leaving,” Seth remembered him announcing. “Now.”
Seth’s body shook, his mind still tormented by memories of that dreadful night—the night he lost Alicia. Even now, six years later, the guilt still tore at him. She would still be alive now if he hadn’t been so foolish—if he hadn’t gone to her rooms and begged her to leave with him. How young he had been, and naive about the world. Of course, one way or another, they would have been found and torn away from each other. At least, if he had listened to his father, Alicia would be alive, rather than lying in the ground.
They had been close. Their fathers had been allies, serving in a war to defeat a greater evil—the Campbells. However, everything changed after they had won. Laird Anderson refused to give Seth’s father the lands promised to him, and so, within a fortnight, their clans had become enemies.
Seth sighed as he rose from his bed, his jaw clenching at the slight pain in his right foot. He had broken his leg that night, and even after regaining most of his movement back, there were still aches in the morning. The healer had thought he would never be able to walk again, but Seth had proved him wrong, practicing day and night with a walking stick, focusing mostly on standing and then hobbling short distances.
“Aye, but he will never walk without the use of that stick,” the healer had said begrudgingly.
And, of course, Seth proved him wrong again, working hard every day so that he could be of use to the McGill clan once again. His leg indeed healed, but there were days Seth wanted to give up, days when the pain was so insufferable he wished to remain in bed. And once he could walk, he had to learn once more how to ride a horse, how to step while holding a sword—things he had learned as a young boy, he had to relearn again all because of that foolish night.
Seth’s gaze drifted to his left hand, a grimace settling on his face as he stared down at the puckered scars staring back at him. He clenched and unclenched it, biting back a gasp as the tendons ached at the slight movement. It would never be the same ever again, but at least he fought well with his right.
Seth turned at the knock on the door. “Enter,” he called, watching as a young servant girl entered, her gaze on the floor as she moved swiftly inside.
“Is there anything ye need?” she asked softly. “I heard yer cries and worried yer hand-“
“Nae,” Seth rushed out, forcing a smile when he noticed the servant girl’s flinch. “I am quite well.”
She nodded, her head lifting. Her face flushed as their gazes met, and he watched the way she fidgeted back and forth. “Would ye care to have breakfast in yer rooms again?”
Seth shook his head. “Nae, that is quite all right. I will gather my provisions from the kitchens.”
“Aye, of course.”
Seth watched her leave, wondering if he would later hear of gossip spread on his wails in the morn. He tried not to let it get to him, but it was difficult. With his elder brother now laird, Seth felt as if he was wasting away in this castle. If his father were still alive, he would have found him a good match by now, and he would be laird of his own fortress. However, shortly after Seth’s tumble, his father died from consumption, and his mother was so distraught over nearly losing her youngest son, no arrangements were made.
Not that Seth wanted them. He didn’t think he could ever love another. Not after losing Alicia. Not many highland women would be interested in a deformed wretch such as himself. He could walk now, but his hand looked perverse, and even when he wore his glove to hide the hideous thing, it still did nothing to stop gossip.
Seth crouched low in front of his trunk, opening it and taking out his tartan dyed in the McGill clan colors of yellow, green, and red. He dressed quickly, belting his plaid and tucking in his leine. He grabbed his black glove, sliding it over his scarred hand, feeling as if by wearing the flimsy fabric he could be renewed. Renewed, however, his pain and guilt still lurked within him, shadowing his eyes.
Seth strode towards the washbasin, splashing the cold water onto his face.
His attention was caught by his reflection, and he stared at himself through the looking glass, taking in his broad shoulders and his muscled chest. He had filled out since his boyhood years. His dark hair hung down around his shoulders, and his jawline was speckled with morning stubble. He was no longer that skinny, lanky boy running away in the woods.
A knock at the door made him flinch, and he turned, finding the same servant girl quickly entering. “Apologies,” she rushed out. “The elder Lady McGill has required yer presence in her chambers.”
Seth frowned at the tremble in the servant girl’s hands, the hunch in her shoulders. Has Mother worsened overnight? Seth wondered while striding towards the door. Ever since his father died, his mother had grown to hysterics, her nights plagued with dreams, and the nights filled with her screams and cries, yet no one, not even the healer, knew what ailed her. Many thought the death of her husband and the ailment of her youngest son had simply been too much for her. Others worried witches had tainted her mind and soon she would turn against them all.
Seth placed a hand on the servant girl’s shoulders, his frown deepening at her shaky sigh. “Is Mother well?” Seth asked, already knowing the answer.
Tears glimmered back at him as the servant girl met his gaze. She offered a curt nod, yet he believed she was merely saving face. He straightened himself and strode out of his chambers and down the shadowed halls lit with candelabras. The flames flickered as he walked. The sounds of swords clanging and women gossiping reached his ears. His lips twitched at the sound of children laughing, and his thoughts went to his niece and nephew, wondering if they had greeted their grandmother this morn. Sorrow filled him, knowing his niece and nephew would never get to meet the woman his mother used to be.
Seth turned down a corridor, stopping briefly at a window overlooking the courtyard below. Men were training. His elder brother, Calum, was standing at the front with crossed arms and a deep scowl. Calum looked just as their father did: tall and broad with a severe look to his face and hair that hung limply around his shoulders. His nose was bent wrong, due to Seth accidentally breaking it during a dual when they were young boys. Calum was rarely severe when they were children; he was always laughing and causing mischief.
Seth leaned against the window, his expression pained as he stared down at Calum. It had been too much for him to take on, Seth thought while he watched Calum shout his commands. First, my injuries, then Father’s death. Now Mother’s ailment. Of course it changes a man.
He turned away from the window and continued through the hall, his shoulders tensing with each and every step as he drew closer to the staircase awaiting him. When their mother’s wails had become too much for Calum, he had her placed in the highest tower, worried the rumors were true—that a witch had enchanted her. Seth hated it. With his mother trapped inside the highest tower, she could hardly see her grandchildren, hardly be with her family. He truly believed her ailment was due to a broken heart, but Calum had to do something to calm his people. And so, this was his answer.
Seth stopped in front of the large black door, his left-hand clenching and unclenching nervously, wondering what his mother would do when he entered.
This was not the first time he was summoned to her rooms. It had become a common occurrence. Shortly after his father died, his mother had called upon him nearly every morning. Yet, as the years went by, the summonings had lessened. Now, Seth figured they happened only a few times every season, and each time he came to her chambers, she acted differently, leaving him to wonder what he would receive this morn.
His right hand fisted, and he lightly knocked on the door. He swallowed the lump in his throat when he received no answer, and slowly turned the handle, ignoring the nausea swimming through him and the twisting of his insides as the door creaked open.
“Mother?” Seth called softly so as not to scare her.
His mother did not answer, and for a moment, he worried she had done something foul. He stepped quickly inside the room, looking around. A sharp breath escaped him as he found his mother, dressed in black as if still in mourning, sitting on a cushioned chair near the window. Her head was bent, her arms resting on the windowsill while the light glimmered down upon her, reminding him of the women he had seen in the abbey.
Seth stilled as his mother’s whispers reached him. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” she continued on, her head tilting towards the sun.
Seth bit his tongue to keep himself from interrupting. He glanced over his shoulder, ensuring they were alone. His mother was whispering the prayers of the Catholic faith, a conflict to the Protestant worship his clan had reformed to. It was not uncommon for him to hear the Catholic prayer from her lips. However, with the gossip circling the lands about the elder Lady McGill becoming ever darker, he worried what would come of her if any outsiders from other clans heard her prayers during Calum’s seasonal meetings. Perhaps, that was another reason why Calum kept her in this tower.
“Mother,” he called again, hoping she heard him this time.
Her prayer stopped, and she glanced over her shoulder, her eyes swollen from crying, her face flushed. Shadows circled her eyes and heavy bags hung under them. Slowly, she straightened her body from the windowsill, her eyes glimmering with fresh tears.
Had she been crying the whole night? Seth wondered as he strode towards her.
He kneeled in front of her, taking her hand in his. Her skin was so cold. Her hand dangled within his, feeling limp, like a dead fish floating on the surface of a dark loch. She smiled sadly down at him, her other hand stroking the side of his face.
“My son,” she rasped.
“Are ye well, dearest Mother?” Seth asked, unable to hide the worry in his tone. “Have ye not slept? Ye look as if ye have seen a ghost.”
She did not answer him as she stroked his hair away from his face. “I have prayed every night and day,” she whispered, “that God would make ye walk again, fight again. Tis a miracle yer able to now.”
Seth nodded. “He has answered yer prayers, Mother.” He clenched his jaw, trying very hard to keep the worry from his face as he gazed up at his mother. It had been at least a year if not more since he regained full movement of his leg. Did she not remember? Was her mind so frail that she simply could not remember? Or, perhaps, he did not visit her as much as he should?
His mother’s gaze fell on his gloved left hand, and her smile dissipated as if she could see through the cloth—see the scarred and puckered skin. Her hand slipped from his grasp. “Not all,” she whispered with a slight shake of her head. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” She looked up at the ceiling as if she was gazing into the heavens. “I thought I was doing right by ye all these years, biding by yer father’s last wishes. These years have tormented me night and day, and I can no longer bear the guilt of keeping this secret. Please,” she gasped. “Forgive me.”
“Forgive ye?” Seth whispered while rising from the floor. “Mother, what is wrong?”
His mother sobbed, her hand coming over her mouth while she looked away from him.
“Please, ye must tell me.”
His mother’s eyes closed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Her face had become abnormally pale.
“Sit, my dearest son,” she whispered while gesturing towards a chair resting near a small table in the middle of the room. “Sit with me and hear what I must tell. Pray, have patience with me. I do not know if I can even say the words, but they must be said. I can no longer keep silent.”
Seth nodded and grabbed the chair, moving it so he could sit across from his mother. He leaned towards her, watching as her eyes opened and closed. Her mouth moved in silent prayer, and he wondered if she would tell him anything at all, or if she would ignore him as she used to—captured by her thoughts once more and no longer able to perceive the world around her.
“Mother,” he whispered, grabbing her hand, hoping to pull her back from her thoughts, hoping he could keep her with him at least until he left. He didn’t think he could bear it if she did not tell him this secret eating away at her. Perhaps, if she finally confessed her sins, she would be free of this sorcery. Perhaps her mind would return, and she could be with her family once more. “Please, ye must tell me.”
Her eyes snapped open, and she stared back at him with wide, bloodshot eyes that made his skin prickle as if the air had suddenly become chilled. She leaned towards him, her hand grasping his tightly as she whispered, “Yer father and I lied to ye, my dearest son. We did it to protect ye. Ye must understand, we did it for ye. We would never wish any pain upon ye. We thought this was for the best.”
“What was for the best?” Seth whispered as he forced himself to remain still, to not flee from his mad mother. Whatever it was she wished to tell him, he would remain, even if that meant her ailment spread to him. “Protect me from what?”
A witch? he wondered.
“Yer father was adamant I not tell ye. I wanted to, but he made me promise due to the agreement between him and Laird Anderson.”
Seth’s brows tented, and he craned his neck, not understanding how or why Laird Anderson would be involved, given their clans were enemies.
His mother shook her head. “How can I keep a secret from my own son? How could yer father expect me to keep an agreement struck between lairds? I am a mother first before I am a lady.” His mother whimpered, her free hand touching her brow lightly. “And now, it is all too late. I have waited too long.”
“What is this secret, Mother?” Seth asked harshly. “And why is Laird Anderson involved? How could he be after everything he did to us? After what he did to Father?”
His mother gasped, more tears falling from her eyes. She shook her head, her mouth opening, and closing.
“Mother, tell me at once,” Seth said, trying desperately to hold back his frustrations. He hated the turmoil on his mother’s face, the pain in her eyes, how she looked so frail and broken by the secrets weighing her down.
“It’s Alicia,” his mother breathed. “She’s alive.”
Seth stilled, his breath leaving him. He couldn’t feel his feet, let alone the rest of his body, as he stared back at his mother. Alicia? he thought, recalling the way her eyes glimmered in the sunlight when she laughed, and how she would plait flowers in her hair.
“Do not lie to me,” Seth whispered, his hand pulling from her grasp. “That cannot be true.”
Tears slipped from his mother’s gaze. “Tis the truth,” she whispered.
Seth stood, the chair nearly toppling behind him, but he caught it quickly with his good hand. He knew he should stay. His mother was not well. However, he could not bear to hear anymore. He would call for the healer. Surely, there was something he could do.
“Seth!” his mother called as he made his way towards the door. “She did not die that night. She still lives. I promise ye, I speak the truth. I swear it on yer father’s grave!”
Seth inhaled deeply, struggling to control his own tears. It cannot be true, he told himself. Mother has truly gone mad. She does not speak the truth.
“I have a letter.”
Seth paused mid-step. He glanced over his shoulder at his mother, wondering if she was lying to keep him there, or if she was speaking the truth. A part of him told him to leave, go find the healer, but his feet had a mind of their own, and they returned him to his mother. He slowly lowered himself in the seat before her. His hands trembled as he tried to grasp what his mother had just told him.
Alicia? Alive? he swallowed a sob as he shook his head. How can that be?
“Show me this letter,” Seth said, watching as his mother’s hand went to the pocket of her skirts.
July 14, 1557
Alicia stared out the large window, her hand pushing the crimson curtains from the glass. She jutted out her chin as she watched Laird MacDonald and his son, Andrew MacDonald, mount their steeds. The sun gleamed down upon their golden heads, making them appear angelic compared to the arrogance and crude demeanor they exuded in the great hall.
Good riddance, Alicia thought as she watched them ride out beyond the walls of her clan’s fortress. She had counted down the days until the MacDonalds’ departure, but it was only a matter of time until her father brought another suitor to the castle. Alicia grimaced at the mere thought of it. How can Father be so devoted to having me married when I can hardly remember my own upbringing?
Alicia groaned and pressed fingers into her temples, feeling her mind growing foggy as she tried to push herself to remember. She recalled waking up in bed several years ago, her head aching as if someone had slammed the hilt of their sword against the back of it. She remembered being surrounded by people she knew but could not place. Now, she knew them as her father, her mother, and the clan’s healer, Murdoch. However, at the time, fear had seized her heart at the fog clouding her memories. She recalled the way Murdoch had stroked his long white beard, the worry in his grey eyes.
“Oh, my darling,” her mother had sobbed, throwing herself at Alicia and wrapping her arms around her. Alicia had stilled herself, her heart pounding in her chest as she tried to place the woman who held her. “My sweet darling, yer alive. How is it yer alive?”
“Who are ye?” Alicia had rasped while pushing her mother away. “What happened? Where am I?”
Her mother had jerked up, her eyes wide in horror. “What do ye mean? I am yer mother.” Her mother’s eyes had glimmered, her bottom lip had trembled. “Do ye not know me?”
With a curt shake of Alicia’s head, her mother had burst into a fit of tears.
“Raibert!” her mother had wailed, clinging to a man hovering nearby—her father. Her father’s gaze had remained on her, his face looking both stoic and grim. Alicia remembered thinking him familiar, and yet terrifying.
“Raibert, do something! She does not remember me. She does not remember us!”
Her father had grabbed her mother’s hands and tenderly pushed her away. He had knelt before Alicia’s bedside, taking her hand gently into his large grasp. “Do ye not remember last night? The accident?”
Alicia had blinked back at him. She recalled the fog setting over her as she tried to remember, but there was nothing. “What accident?”
No one had told her what happened, and every time she asked, she was told not to worry her pretty little head over the matter. Alicia’s hand tightened on the drapes. Anger burned within her—anger at herself for her inability to remember what happened so long ago, anger at her father for wishing to sell her off, anger at Murdoch for keeping her father’s secrets.
Alicia wished there was something she could do to stop herself from feeling this way. She wanted her memories returned to her, but she didn’t know how.
No matter how much she tried to push past the walls surrounding that dark day, her head would ache and her body would grow limp. It was as if she was lost in a fog within the realm of the fae, unable to escape, forever trapped within this shell of a person.
And she did feel trapped. Her father never let her out of his sight. Whether she was within the castle or out in the fields, she was always being followed, either by the servants or by the guards. She could only be alone in her rooms. It was both her sanctuary and her prison.
A knock sounded at the door, but Alicia didn’t say anything, nor did she turn. She knew exactly who waited on the other side of that door, and knew that whatever she said, it would not matter.
The door creaked open, followed by steps drawing closer to her. They stopped in the middle of the room, and she steeled herself against the words soon to follow.
“Yer laird has entered the room, Daughter,” her father’s stern voice permeated her chamber. “Must ye keep yer back to me?”
Alicia dropped the drapes and slowly turned around. Her father frowned at her, his hands behind his back while he regarded her. She was nearly the spitting image of him, with hair like fire and eyes like the fields after the morning rain. Alicia looked very little like her mother, except for the narrowness of her nose and the sharpness of her jaw. She wondered what her father thought as he stared at her. If he was disappointed in her for denying another potential suitor.
“Is this better, Father?” she asked, forcing a smile.
Laird Anderson pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing at the bite in her tone. “I heard Laird MacDonald’s son asked for yer hand.”
“Aye, he did,” Alicia said with a curt nod.
Laird Anderson took a step towards her, his gaze growing dark. “And ye turned him away?”
Alicia’s lips curled into a genuine smile, and she nodded her head once more as she said sweetly, “Indeed, I did.”
Laird Anderson looked heavenward as if asking the holy father for advice. He inhaled deeply, his shoulders shaking with what Alicia assumed was his frustration. Her father always had a fiery temperament.
“I do not understand, Daughter,” he finally said. “First it was the Dunbars, which I understand; he was a wee bit old for ye.”
Alicia tried not to gag, recalling Laird Dunbar and the way he struggled to walk inside the great hall and the way his beard was littered with food from days past.
“But then there was the Mackay lad, who seemed kind and well-mannered.”
Alicia clenched her jaw to keep from scoffing. Laird Mackay’s son was a foolish, talkative boy who frequently wished to tell her of all his most accomplished deeds. He was always boasting about how much better he was compared to others. Alicia liked him even less when he yelled at a servant girl for accidentally spilling his ale all over the great hall’s floor.
Well-mannered, Father says, Alicia thought with disdain. There was nothing well-mannered about that lad.
“And then there was Laird Gunn.”
Alicia groaned, her eyes rolling as she heard her father say, “Strong, capable, with lands we could use and an army of men to follow him.”
Alicia couldn’t stand Laird Gunn. She grimaced as she recalled him during the nightly feasts, licking his fork as he stared at her, his tongue curling around the silver like an adder. She had tried to stay as far away from him as she possibly could, but he always found her. Even on his last day at the Anderson castle, he had pulled her into a tight hug, his hands sliding too far down her back to be considered proper. Laird Gunn was lucky she hadn’t smacked him in front of his many men, and so was her father.
“What was wrong with Laird Gunn?” her father asked, his tone nearly shrill as he looked her up and down.
Alicia sighed and her gaze fell to the stone floor. “Naething, Father,” she murmured.
“All these years,” her father continued as he paced back and forth, “searching and preparing, all so ye may marry a well-off man, a worthy man, who will care for ye. All of it wasted!” He threw his hands up, his voice growing louder, his gaze darker. Alicia flinched as she watched her father turn on his heel, his scowl darkening on her.
“I apologize, Father,” Alicia said, her body shriveling before him as he stalked towards her.
Laird Anderson sighed, his body slumping forward, his gaze softening. His hand rested on her shoulder, and all the anger in his gaze left, quickly replaced by worry. “All I want for ye is to marry a worthy man.”
“Why must I marry at all?” Alicia asked, her voice a mere whisper.
“Because, my dearest daughter, believe it or nae, but I will not live forever, and I must know that my dearest will be well cared for.” Laird Anderson ran a hair through his ginger hair. “And not only ye, but the clan, as well. Whoever takes yer hand will also have our people to consider.”
Alicia nodded. She understood where her father was coming from. The clan needed an heir, and given her father only had Alicia, she must marry for the people’s benefit. It made sense, yet it didn’t mean Alicia liked it any more than she did. She wanted to marry for love, as foolish as it sounded, and she also wanted to marry when she felt she could be herself, not this person she had become due to her inability to remember.
“I understand, Father,” Alicia forced out, hoping she sounded like the dutiful daughter her father wanted her to be.
Laird Anderson smiled, yet there was no joy in his gaze. He looked like the same disheartened man she had met all those years ago when she woke up in her bed without any of her memories.
“Good,” he said gruffly. “I knew ye would.”
Alicia frowned as her father’s hand slipped from her shoulders. She watched him turn towards the door, his hands moving to grasp each other behind his back. There was something off. She could feel it. There was a reason he had come to her after the MacDonalds had left.
“I have sent ravens to the other clans,” her father started, his back still facing her. “To our allies. We have received many positive responses.”
“Ravens?” Alicia repeated, stepping away from the window. “Whatever for?”
Laird Anderson glanced over his shoulder, his expression looking stern yet pained. “There will be a festival in two weeks’ time. Lairds and their sons from all over will come to our lands, dine at our table, drink from our cups.”
Alicia felt dizzy.
Lairds and their sons, she repeated in her head. She grasped her hands together to keep them from shaking, but she couldn’t stop picking at her fingernails.
Why would Father invite lairds and their sons to a festival?
As if her father had mystical powers and could read her mind, he answered her with, “We will hold a challenge for yer hand in marriage.”
Alicia’s heart dropped to her stomach. She wavered where she stood, feeling as if at any moment she might faint. Her father had sent ravens, he had conspired to marry her off without previously discussing it with her.
Although, how could she expect him to? Something like this was bound to happen eventually, given she sent every suitor who asked for her hand away.
“Each man will be tested in battle and must prove himself worthy,” her father continued, clearly not noticing her distress. “And once yer husband has deemed himself worthy, we will hold a grand feast in his and yer honor.”
Alicia closed her eyes, clenching her jaw as she felt an uneasy shudder ripple down her spine. “It will be a grand sight to be sure.” She hated the joy in his tone, hated the way he sounded so sure of himself. “Ye will marry the most honorable and worthy man of the clans.”
Alicia opened her eyes then, a giggle escaping her, yet it had nothing to do with the merriment of planning an upcoming wedding. She was being sold—offered as a trophy to men wielding swords and arrows. It was all a game to them. Her life meant nothing to the lairds and their sons. This competition her father spoke of wasn’t about her at all. It was about gloating and boasting who was the best of all. She was disgusted. Why couldn’t her father understand she wasn’t ready?
“Father-” she started, hoping she could plead her case, but Laird Anderson raised his hand, silencing her immediately.
“I will see ye for dinner, Daughter,” he said while striding towards her door. “Yer mother wishes to speak to ye about yer attire. Yer to have new dresses made for the occasion.”
Alicia grimaced as she watched her father leave, her hands fisting at her sides. If she could, she would fight all the lairds and their men. She would do anything to keep herself from their clutches, but she did not know how to wield a sword nor shoot a bow and arrow. A tear slipped down her cheek as she turned around, her hands pushing the drapes away. She stared out the window, watching the MacDonalds leave, wishing she could hide amongst them and leave this prison. She swallowed a sob, knowing she must remain strong.
Tears will not help me, she thought while quickly wiping them away. I must think of something.
Her gaze drifted to her right hand still holding the drapes, focusing on the small birthmark on her thumb. The lines were faint, but they were there. Most birthmarks were dark and ugly, and yet, this one reminded Alicia of the flowers growing in her mother’s garden—like a rose blooming. Alicia turned away from the window. Her fingertips traced the lines of her birthmark, and as she did, she felt a sense of calm seep through her. She did not know why, but every time she looked at this small flower on her thumb, her sorrow would float away.
Alicia sighed and leaned against the windowsill. Father may have his challenge, she thought while tracing the flower.
He may have his lairds, his swords, his battle for my hand. But I will not accept any suitor, no matter who wins. Alicia’s gaze lifted, and she scowled at the door her father had left through moments before.
I may be just a flower to be won, but some flowers have thorns. I will not go easily with any man.
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