When a Scot Gives His HeartBy: Julie Johnstone
Marsaili Campbell stood upon the ramparts of Innis Chonnell Castle as her father’s warriors filled the courtyard below. The battle-hardened Highlanders spilled out from the sanctuary, past the iron-spiked, tower-manned gates and down the stone path to the loch that surrounded the Campbell stronghold. Rain poured from the sky, turning the hill into a stream of raw, red, slippery earth that could easily cause a man to lose his footing and tumble down the rocky cliffs to his death. The throng was a terrifying sight to behold, which was what her father, the Campbell laird, had wanted.
As if he sensed she was thinking of him, her father raised his arms, his black cape billowing in the wind in front of her. Before he said a word, a deafening cheer rose from the masses. Whether it was out of adoration or fear, she could not say for certain, but she suspected it was the latter. She would never dare utter such a suspicion aloud, however. A shiver ran through her just thinking of the penance cell in the dungeon where she’d spent many a night for speaking her mind. At eighteen summers, she fully understood to keep her thoughts to herself by now.
“The Gathering is upon us!” her father shouted to his men.
“Steward sworn!” came the thundering reply from the warriors, as well as her mother, brothers, Colin and Findlay, and sister, Helena, who were by her father’s side. Marsaili stood alone at the back of the rampart. It used to vex her being set apart from her family, but now she secretly considered it a badge of pride. She was different from them. She had honor—or she hoped she did, anyway.
Her father motioned for silence, and a hush immediately rippled through the crowd, leaving it so quiet that a squawk from a bird flying above made Marsaili twitch in surprise.
“Today marks a bold step toward taking the throne from King David,” her father began. He paused as another cheer rent the air.
Marsaili forced a smile in case one of her siblings, her mother, or God forbid, her father turned around and saw her face. She could ill afford to appear anything but enthusiastic about all the Scottish lairds, lords, and their chosen representatives arriving at the Campbell hold today. Some of them had come most willingly. Others, she knew from eavesdropping at her father’s solar, had been enticed with promises of greater wealth and land, and still others had been threatened with reprisal from her father if they did not attend the Gathering and pledge their support to Robert Stewart, who was known simply as the Steward due to his title, High Steward of Scotland. He was the nephew of King David II, King of the Scots, and he wanted his uncle’s throne.
“We will nae tolerate a king who does nae care what his people think, feel, or want!”
Swords clanked against shields with a vibrating hum that filled Marsaili’s ears. She wanted to spit her disgust, but she swallowed it instead. Her father was a wordsmith at best, a perverse liar at worst. She had heard from his very mouth the real reason he had pledged his support to the Steward. It was because King David was a strong king whose views on how to rule Scotland differed from those of the wealthy lords and lairds, and he neither needed nor wanted greedy men like her father telling him what to do. And it was because the king believed the common people of Scotland were as important as the wealthy, if not more so. The commoners gave the king their full support; therefore, he was rewarding them with land and coin that he was taking from men like her father, men who thought to rule the king himself.
“For the next two fortnights,” Father went on, “I will gather support for the Steward and ensure the pledges that have already been made are still strong! We must show our strength to all friend and foe!” Cheers and shouts of agreement rose from the crowd. “We go forth with the hope that the Steward will take the throne, but we must ready ourselves for every possible outcome. Every man who steps foot on my land these next two fortnights, from the squire of a Highlander to the powerful English Earl of Ulster, must ken my power. They must nae forget that I am an ally they need. Must nae forget to fear ever crossing me. Ne obliviscaris!”
“Ne obliviscaris!” roared the warriors and Marsaili’s family alike.
The Campbell clan motto, Forget not, reverberated in her ears. She had the untimely urge to laugh, which sometimes happened when she was disgusted. Forget not, her father had chanted. Forget not his greatness, he’d told them. Forget not his power, he’d said. What she could not forget was his cruelty, his harshness, his greed.