“PLEASE, my lady, do not do this, come with me,” Gunna begged, tears running down her full cheeks. Tears and determination filled Lady Aila’s eyes and she squeezed the woman’s slim arm. “You have been more than a loyal servant to me, Gunna, you have been a kind and loyal friend. I need that friendship and loyalty now more than ever.” “I won’t fail you, my lady. You have my word,” Gunna said, resolve and strength forming with the tilt of her chin. Lady Aila smiled softly. “I know you won’t. That is why I tasked you with this dangerous mission. I have faith in you, Gunna, and never forget how grateful I am to you for what you do for me.” Gunna’s tears continued to fall. “I wish—” “I know. I wish the same.” Lady Aila wiped at the few tears that had escaped her eyes. “Unfortunately, fate has other plans, but I won’t let fate decide my daughter’s destiny.
She will live to decide her own. Now go and do what you must.” She hugged the woman tight and turned away from her. Lady Aila fought her tears as she hurried through the castle and when she entered the Great Hall, she gasped. Warriors were placing her husband on one of the tables. She hurried to him. Her legs almost failed her when she caught sight of his chest covered with blood. She took his limp hand when she reached his side and she was grateful to feel his fingers close around hers though not with the strength of the mighty warrior he had always been. “Brochan.” His eyes fluttered open and he struggled to speak.
“Tell me it is done.” “It is done, my love,” she said, resting her cheek next to his. Tears filled his eyes, something Aila had never seen in the eight years they had been married. “I have always loved you, Aila, and I will miss you.” He struggled to turn his head to kiss her cheek. Aila moved her head meeting his lips in a kiss that was bittersweet. “Not for long. I will not be far behind you.” She pressed her fingers to his mouth, seeing him ready to argue. “It must be done.
It’s the only way.” “If she is half as willful and strong as you, she will survive.” “And as brave and fearless as you. I love you, Brochan, always.” He fought with what little strength he had left to raise his hand and she helped him, resting his hand against her cheek and placing her hand over it. She held it there tight against her, not caring that it was marred with dirt and blood. She wanted to feel his touch one last time. His hand went limp against her cheek and she watched as life faded from his eyes, and she wept. “They’re almost here, my lady, you must leave,” a warrior urged. She nodded, kissed her husband one last time, and hurried out of the room.
She rushed to her bedchamber and grabbed her cloak, then went to the cradle beside the bed and picked up the small, wrapped bundle. Her tears continued to stream down her face as she hurried through the keep. Two days. It had been barely two days since she had given birth to their daughter and two days since the Scottish crown ordered the execution of her husband and daughter so that the Clan MacWilliam would be no more. Her husband had bravely fought but it had been a losing battle and they both knew from the start that it would be. Their only hope had been to save their precious newborn bairn from losing her life before she even had a chance to start it. Aila hugged the small bundle to her chest and took quick steps through the keep. Many of the servants had deserted them and the few warriors that remained faithful were fast falling to the enemy’s sword. She had little time. She made her way out the back of the keep and around the side.
Her boots sunk into the snow on the ground, covering a good portion of them. A sharp chill stung her cheeks, and the gloom of the gray sky that hovered heavily over the village added to her despair. Her only way to the woods was through part of the village. She watched as she waited as the last of the MacWilliam warriors fell bravely one after another and when she thought the way clear, she ran. A shout echoed through the village. “THERE SHE IS!” Another shout followed. “SHE HAS THE BAIRN!” Her heart beat pounded against her chest and she prayed for strength to do what needed to be done. She ran, reaching the edge of the woods, darting around the large pines and barren oaks. The hood of her dark cloak slipped off her head, her long dark hair spilling free. She hugged the bundle tightly to her chest.
“GET THE BAIRN. KILL HER!” a warrior cried out. Warriors suddenly surrounded her. She was trapped, there was no way out. “It won’t be long now, Brochan,” she whispered. I’m here with you, Aila. You’re not alone. The whisper of his voice in her head gave her strength and she raised her chin proudly, standing perfectly still. The pounding of horses’ hooves was heard and the circle of men parted. Three warriors, lords in their own right, brought their horses to a stop not far from her.
“Give her over and we’ll let you live,” the one in the middle commanded. She looked to each of them, all three having once claimed to be her husband’s friend. But her husband’s opposition to what the authority of Scottish kings would mean for the Highlands were at odds and so friends became foes. “Don’t give your life needlessly, Aila,” the one warrior said. Her heart broke at Lochlann’s words. He had been a good friend to her husband and to her. “Hand over your daughter,” Lochlann ordered. When Aila didn’t obey, a nod from Lochlann had a warrior step forward to rip the bundle from Aila’s arms. The warrior shook his head as he tore the bundle apart, nothing but small blankets dropping to the ground. “Tell us where she is,” Lochlann commanded.
“Never,” Aila said. “Save yourself from torture, Aila, and tell us where she is,” Lochlann urged. “No torture could be worse than the pain I suffer over the loss of my husband and that I will never see my daughter grow into a fine, brave woman. You will never find her. The MacWilliam bloodline will live on.” Aila smiled and before a warrior could reach her, she grabbed the knife she had tucked in the belt at her waist and plunged it into her stomach. Lochlann rushed off his horse and went to her, going down beside her where she lay slumped on the ground. He slipped his arm under her shoulders and lifted her some. Blood began to dribble from Aila’s mouth. “She’s safe.
You’ll never find her. And a curse on the three of you for betraying your friend. May you suffer and never know peace until you right this terrible wrong.” She struggled to continue talking. “But you, Lochlann, will suffer the worst for you were his best friend.” Aila smiled as a bolt of lightning suddenly illuminated the sky and a crack of thunder followed, sounding like an angry roar from the heavens. Her last words were carried on the thunder as it rumbled away along with her life. “The heavens accept the curse and will see it done.” A C H A P T E R 2 bout twenty years later BLİSS KEPT her arms around her two sisters as the two men entered the Clan Loudon village. There had been talk for weeks of these men and what their arrival meant.
They were there to find a wife for the cursed lord. News had spread rapidly through the clan, alerting all to Lord MacClaren’s intentions. With no noble lord allowing his daughter anywhere near the cursed lord, Lord MacClaren had resorted to looking among the peasants. He had but one son left, his other two sons having met early deaths; one in battle and the other to an illness. There was a good reason that no noble or sane woman wanted to wed Rannick MacClaren. His family had been cursed and he had been touched by it, losing three wives in the last six years. One had died in childbirth along with the bairn, one had perished in an accident, and one had collapsed in his arms and died as if the curse had simply struck her down. Desperate for his son to wed, Lochlann MacClaren had sent two warriors to scour the surrounding land and find his son a wife. “They won’t choose us, will they, Bliss?” Elysia asked, her voice as gentle as her soft nature. “I’ll not let them take you, Elysia,” Annis said, her hand on the hilt of her knife tucked in the sheath on her belt at her waist and a glint in her eyes that would warn away any sensible person.
“I’ll see them gutted before I let them take me.” She turned brilliant green eyes on Bliss. “It’s a good thing you’re two ten and two years, well past marriage age and you don’t possess round, child-bearing hips, being so rail thin.” “Annis, you’re being cruel,” Elysia scolded. “Annis is only speaking the truth,” Bliss said, worried over Annis, not only that she failed to measure her words, but also because she was the most beautiful lass in the village. Her long, flaming red hair highlighted her pale complexion and danced in ringlets around her lovely face. Her green eyes were as bold in color as her tongue was with her words. And her shapely body caught the eye of every man in the village, wed or not. Fortunately, her sharp tongue kept them at bay. Annis was not one for womanly chores, but would rather be engaged with the planting of the fields or the building of the shelters or sheds.
“You think me cruel and I think us lucky, for I do not want to lose Bliss,” Annis said and quickly turned her head away. As strong and determined as Annis was, she had a generous and loving heart and tears often were her enemy, sneaking up on her unexpectedly, and no matter how hard she tried to fight them, they would often fall, annoying her. “You are right.” Elysia sighed and looked to Bliss. “I do not know what we’d do without you.” “And you do not have to,” Bliss assured her. “Annis is right. No one will look my way so there is no worry for me.” She wasn’t sure if she needed to worry about Elysia. She was not as beautiful as Annis, but she was pretty with soft green eyes and thick, long, light brown hair that fell to the middle of her back.
She often wore it piled on the top of her head with two combs that couldn’t contain it all, leaving several strands to fall around her face and down her neck. Her narrow hips and small breasts would be a worrisome sign to some wise women who deliver bairns, thinking her woman passageway far too narrow for the bairn to slip through and her breasts too small to provide sufficient milk. But she never found that a problem with all the bairns she’d delivered. She did not, however, want to think about how uncomfortable it might be for Elysia when it came to coupling if she should meet a large man. Elysia also preferred the quiet. She avoided loud, boisterous people and large congregations. She enjoyed stitching and could get lost in it for hours. Many came to her with garments they thought beyond repair and when she got done, no one could tell it had been mended. She could not rule out that the two men might take interest in Elysia, but she was more worried about Annis. She had no worries for herself, since Annis had been right.
No one would look her way. Her features were nothing to speak of and she was fine with that. She probably would never wed and have bairns of her own, though she would love to. Sometimes the thought upset her since she enjoyed raising Annis and Elysia after their mum had died ten years ago. She had barely turned twelve, but she had been all her sisters had, their da having died a year before their mum. Elysia had been seven years and Annis nine years. She had quickly taken on the role of their mum and raised them with love and care just as their mum would have done. One day they would wed good men, she would see to it, and she would help them raise their bairns. “Do not look at the men,” Bliss warned. Elysia already had her eyes cast down, but Annis stuck her chin up defiantly and glared at the two men.
It worried Bliss when the gray-haired man held her gaze far too long. When the men rode past, Bliss turned to Annis. “And what if your defiance gets you a marriage to the cursed lord?” “I will not marry him,” Annis declared with confidence. “And how will you stop it?” Bliss asked, putting nothing past Annis. “I will marry someone else first.” Bliss shook her head. “And who would that be?” “I don’t know, but I better start looking just in case,” Annis said and set off determined. That gave Bliss thought. Perhaps it would be wise to find her two sisters husbands, men that would keep them safe, and men from the clan so that her sisters would not be taken away from her.