Highlander's PrizeBy: Mary Wine
Scottish Lowlands, 1487
“Keep yer face hidden.”
Clarrisa jerked back as one of the men escorting her hit the fabric covering the top of the wagon she rode inside of. An imprint of his fist was clearly visible for a moment.
“Best keep back, my dove. These Scots are foul-tempered creatures, to be sure. We’ve left civilization behind us in England.” There was a note of longing in Maud’s voice Clarrisa tried to ignore. She couldn’t afford to be melancholy. Her uncle’s word had been given, so she would be staying in Scotland, no matter her feelings on the matter.
Better to avoid thinking about how she felt; better to try to believe her future would be bright.
“The world is in a dark humor,” Clarrisa muttered. Her companion lifted the gold cross hanging from her girdle chain and kissed it. “I fear we need a better plan than waiting for divine help, Maud.”
Maud’s eyes widened. Faster than a flash, she reached over and tugged one of Clarrisa’s long braids. Pain shot across her scalp before the older woman sent to chaperone her released her hair. “You’ll mind your tongue, girl. Just because you’re royal-blooded doesn’t give you cause to be doubting that the good Lord has a hand in where you’re heading. You’re still bastard-born, so you’ll keep to your place.”
Clarrisa moved to the other side of the wagon and peeked out again. She knew well who she was. No one ever let her forget, not for as long as she could recall. Still, even legitimate daughters were expected to be obedient, so she truly had no right to be discontented.
So she would hope the future the horses were pulling her toward was a good one.
The night was dark, thick clouds covering the moon’s light. The trees looked sinister, and the wind sounded mournful as it rustled the branches. But Clarrisa didn’t reach for the cross hanging from her own waist. No, she’d place her faith in her wits and refuse to be frightened. That much was within her power. It gave her a sense of balance and allowed her to smile. Yes, her future would hold good things, because she would be wise enough to keep her demeanor kind. A shrew never prospered.
“Far past time for you to accept your lot with more humbleness,” Maud mumbled, sounding almost as uninterested as Clarrisa felt. “You should be grateful for this opportunity to better your lot. Not many bastards are given such opportunities.”
Clarrisa didn’t respond to Maud’s reminder that she was illegitimate. There wasn’t any point. Depending on who wore the crown of England, her lineage was a blessing or a curse.
“If you give the Scottish king a son—”
“It will be bastard-born, since I have heard no offer of marriage,” Clarrisa insisted.
Maud made a low sound of disapproval and pointed an aged finger at her. “Royal-blooded babes do not have to suffer the same burdens the rest of us do. In spite of the lack of blessing from the church your mother suffered, you are on your way to a bright future. Besides, this is Scotland. He’ll wed you quickly if you produce a male child. He simply doesn’t have to marry you first, because you are illegitimate. Set your mind to giving him a son, and your future will be bright.”
Clarrisa doubted Maud’s words. She lifted the edge of the wagon cover again and stared at the man nearest her. His plaid was belted around his waist, with a length of it pulled up and over his right shoulder. The fabric made a good cushion for the sword strapped to his wide back.
Maybe he was a Scotsman, but the sword made him look like any other man she had ever known. They lived for fighting. Power was the only thing they craved. Her blood was nothing more than another way to secure what the king of Scotland hungered for.
Blessing? Not for her, it wouldn’t be.
Lytge Sutherland was an earl, but he ruled like a prince on his land at the top of Scotland. Plenty of men envied him, but the wiser ones gave him deference gladly, because they knew his life was far from simple. At the moment he was feeling the weight of ten lairds, only half of whom he called friends.
“If the rumor is true, we must act,” Laird Matheson insisted. “With a York-blooded son, that bastard James will pass the crown on to an English puppet.”
“Or a king who the English will nae war with because they share common blood,” Laird Morris argued.
The room filled with angry shouts as men leaned over the tables in front of them to give their words more strength.
“Enough!” Lytge snapped. There were several cutting glares, but Matheson and Morris both sat back in their chairs. The tension in the room was so tight the earl knew he had to find a solution before the men assembled before him began fighting one another. “Let us not forget how important it is for us to stand together, or James will get his wish to disinherit his first son, a young man worthy of our loyalty. If we squabble among one another, we will have to be content with James remaining king.”