Lillith’s ears did not register the funeral music as it played and the words of the priest rolled off her like the gentle rain on the hay roof. There she sat, numb, staring at the coffin of her father, as she had for the entirety of the wake. It felt wrong to leave his side, it had been her position in her life and should be in death. She loved her faither dearly and admittedly, had never dedicated more than a fleeting thought about what life would be like once he was gone. She was never meant to find out so early in life. The service was coming to a close and soon enough, the men of her village would carry Arthur Jamieson down to the burial site and lower him into the cold, damp ground, never to surface again. Her heart was clutched in the hands of fate, squeezing it until it was sure to pop and spew red, hot blood. And yet, just as she wished the angels would claim her, the words of the hymnal struck something deep down inside her. Something deeper than the mourning of her father. Community. Her pale face lifted to see their family home packed shoulder to shoulder with every soul from their village and the towns her father frequently did business in, as a successful merchant of the Isles. It was as if every person that had ever purchased goods from Arthur or waved as he passed by on his wagon had shown up to pay their respects. Arthur may have departed himself, but he left Lillith with a strong network of others who would support and watch out for her. Arthur had been a good man, and all the north of Scotland would be damned if harm came to his beautiful daughter. Her eyes fell on Leo, Arthur’s best friend in life and guardian to his daughter in death.
He stood as strong as a great stone wall, his hands clasped and eyes forward. Even the strongest of men could not hide every ounce of emotion from their weathered faces. Surrounding his slate-gray eyes were red blotches—not from crying, but the irritation of wiping his eyes vigorously every time a tear threatened to fall. Leo did not want to appear weak, even in a moment such as the burial of his lifelong friend. He had to be strong if for nothing else but Lillith. It was time to carry the body down to the cemetery. A shaking, slim hand went to her mouth to mask the wail building in the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t ready to let her father go, but then again she knew she would never be. There was no stopping it—she must accept it. The women were left standing at the gate as the eight pole-bearers finished Arthur’s journey.
Lillith found herself staring between the iron bars to watch as they positioned the coffin above the hole in the ground. When the men started the process, Lillith couldn’t bear to look. With a great deal of shame, she turned her cheek. She was startled to find a chest so close to her face. A hand jutted out from a dark cloak to steady her, while the other went to his face and made a hushing motion. Lillith was such a typhoon of emotion, her brain couldn’t make sense of it. She didn’t bother to try and make out the face, the appearance covered by the hood of the cloak and the overcast sky. Feeling embarrassed, Lillith forced herself to look forward once again. It was a punch to the gut to no longer see the coffin. Her hand once again found her mouth, a quiet sob sounding from the frail, emotionally bruised twenty-one-year-old.
“Arthur’s death was nay accident, lass,” a gruff voice whispered in her ear, causing every hair on her slender neck to stand on end. “He was murdered.” It was a long moment before her mind could put the words together, to make sense of the hoarse voice—because it was such a foreign concept to her. Never for a moment had she thought her father’s death had been anything but a tragic accident. Who would want to hurt a merchant as kind and honest as Arthur Jamieson? The air was sucked from her lungs and Lillith turned to ask the hooded man. The figure was gone. Her heart panged painfully in her chest. She wanted—no needed—to scream. Scream in horror, in agony, and in desperation for the hooded figure to come back to her and tell her what in the bloody hell he meant by murdered. Why couldn’t he have been merciful and given her the name of the murderer if he had such information? Her chest was freshly scarred, her heart ripped from her chest all over again.
Her father died all over again in Lillith’s mind, only in a more brutal and horrific fashion. Lillith was frozen in her trauma as her mind tried to untangle the webs of thought. Whether or not the man had been as honest as her father, the cloaked figure had planted a seed of doubt in Lillith’s tender, vulnerable mind. Had her beloved father truly been murdered? Her eyes scanned the crowd of mourners. What if the culprit was present, acting like the mournful neighbor? Lillith’s stomach twisted in painful, nauseating knots. When the dirt was packed upon Arthur Jamieson, the crowd paid their last respects in a unified prayer at the gate before slowly thinning out, retreating back to the family home for the dredgy. Those closest to the family lingered for longer by the gate. Lillith received more pats on the back than she cared to count. There was an overall treatment of her as though her favorite horse had passed. That it would be gloomy for a while, but the clouds would part and she would know the sun again.
Why couldn’t they just let her be sad? Why did every interaction have to be laced with a message of hope? More annoying than their inability to be genuine with the poor grieving girl, was her own growing paranoia. Every time someone approached her, a thought rang quietly in the back of her head: Did ye kill me Faither? Her own mind was soon to drive her mad if she didn’t get home to rest. She looked to Leo, who was faring the well-intentioned crowds much better than herself, as he returned from the grave site. His red eyes had calmed and his cool expression was distant without becoming unfriendly. While the Laird of Aeredale, Connan McCormack, and Leo stood around for a while talking, Lillith was growing impatient. Just as Lillith began to approach Leo to request leaving, a man intercepted her path. He didn’t seem to notice her, she was sure her average height left her as insignificant as an ant to his intimidating, towering form. She had half a mind to say something, but reserved herself for the time being. The man only had her father to thank for her politeness. She would not disrespect his funeral for a pompous man like that.
The man clasped Leo’s shoulder with one hand and his hand with the other. Lillith was raised not to eavesdrop, but she no longer cared. She was not under the reign of a parent and if the man was speaking at her father’s funeral, Lillith felt entitled to know— unfortunately, their voices were just out of reach. “Leo…I’m heartbroken for yer loss. Arthur was a great man.” “Thank ye for coming all the way here.” “Course, couldn’t miss paying my respects to the great, respectable merchant Arthur Jamieson.” “Careful now,” Leo warned, “he’s just on the other side of that hill. Pretty sure ye could still cause that head of his to swell.” “Leo, this is me son, Aindreann.
” Aindreann bowed his head in greeting. “Pleasure to meet ye, Leo.” “I’m nay Laird, lad. Nay need to bow,” Leo mumbled. Leo knew he was being standoffish, but he couldn’t help it. He was in no mood for formalities. After a gruff clearing of the throat from Connan, Aindreann began again. “Did ye ken Arthur long? Ye must be something special for a wealthy man like Arthur Jamieson to entrust his heiress to.” “What business of that is yers?” Leo nearly spat, closing the distance between the young man and himself. Connan stepped between the two, raising hands in defense of Aindreann.
“Forgive me son. Travel has always been hard on his sensibilities. He’s a well-meaning lad. Lack of rest diminishes his manners.” Aindreann stood his ground, his expression as blank as it could be—though suspicion lingered in his icy eyes. Leo sneered and reluctantly backed away. “That does nae clarify why yer boy thinks Arthur’s affairs are any concern of his.” Connan’s eyes fell on Lillith as she stood nearby, the last of the visitors leaving her side. Leo followed his line of sight to Lillith before back to Connan. “Perhaps ‘tis best if we find somewhere private to talk.
After the dredgy?” Leo gave one brisk nod before pacing over to Lillith. “Come now, lass. People are waiting on us.” “What was all that about?” she asked as they started toward their home. The aroma of mutton, vegetables, and beer intertwined with the evening air, only worsening the nausea Lillith had been fighting off for days. “Let’s nae worry about that right now, all right? We have a feast to attend,” he said, hooking an arm around her in comfort. “And I want to see ye actually eat something this time, Lillith. Daenae think I dinnae notice ye take a bite this mornin’.” “Forgive me for nae being hungry at a time like this,” she grumbled. “Ay, none of that sass now.
Daenae think I’m belittling yer pain, dear lass. But, the best thing we can do for now, is to honor what yer Faither would have wanted us to do. Do ye think he would want to see ye wither down to skin and bones over him? I think nae.” A ghost of a smile appeared on Lillith’s lips. After such a miserable day, the comforting words of her familiar Leo was what she needed. “Ye’re going to drink all the beer Arthur would have drank if it were him in attendance. Do ye understand?” Lillith stopped in her tracks and turned to Leo, hugging him tightly. He let out a heavy sigh that had been building in his chest all day long. They both loved Arthur dearly and neither of their lives would ever be the same again. After such a dismal few days, comfort in the one person left on Earth she trusted was just what she needed.
As she pulled back from the hug, Aindreann and Connan passed. When Lillith’s gaze met Aindreann’s for a split moment, he smirked. A shiver went down her spine. She knew not who he was or what that smirk meant but it was enough to cause worry. It was like he knew what was in store for her. It was near impossible for Leo to actively participate in the dredgy after his encounter with the McCormacks. Shortly after Arthur’s death, Leo had gone through his papers to find his will. It was no act of good will that the McCormack’s had shown up to pay their respects. They were there to stake their claim in Jamieson’s estate. Of course, the fortune came with a price—a marriage to Lillith.
Leo’s face screwed up at the mere thought. Connan was a good enough fellow, but Leo didn’t feel right marrying off a daughter that wasn’t his own. Especially not to a lad like Aindreann, who walked onto the Jamieson’s land as though he already owned it. Sure, Connan excused his son’s abhorrent behavior by saying he was tired from the journey, but Leo was not daft. The moment Leo stood from the table and excused himself outside for fresh air, Connan followed. “Can this nae wait, Connan?” Leo called over, not having to look over to ken it was him. “Let us have today, at least.” “Ye ken I mean nae disrespect, Leo,” Connan began softly, pacing across the grass to join his side. “Ye also ken I’m a Laird and have to be on me way soon enough, having me own things to oversee. We have quite the journey ahead of us and I need to get this matter sorted before I head back.
” “I daenae ken what ye want me to do, Connan,” Leo retorted, shaking his head. “She’s nae my daughter to marry off. I’m nae going to just give her away to a man I daenae ken. She just lost her Faither, for Christ’s sake.” “Nae, she may nae be yer daughter—but she is yer ward. Arthur trusted ye with her care. Besides, Aindreann is nae just some stranger, he’s my son.” “He’s an arse.” Connan sighed and drew near. “I ken he didn’t make a good first impression—” he was cut off by a glare from Leo.
“He’s a decent enough lad. He’s a natural leader. He may be a bit too smart for his own good and as stubborn as an ox…but he would take good care of Lillith.” “Why am I supposed to take ye at yer word?” Leo snapped, growing tired of the conversation. He hated every part of it, not feeling prepared in any sense of the word to handle the virtue of Lillith. “Ye’ve got nothin’ else to go on,” Connan said with a shrug. Leo grimaced and looked up at the sunset. “Arthur and I have been planning to marry our children for quite some time. A great union of the north. I hate that he passed before ever bringing it up to the poor lass, I ken it will make it quite the shock…however, the pact must be honored.
” “Must it?” Leo mused. “Aye,” Connan nodded. “She’s a lass, Leo. She can’t access any of the money without a husband. And if the pact is nae honored, well—” His voice trailed off, knowing he did not have to complete the sentiment. If Lillith did not uphold the pact her father made to the McCormack’s, she would essentially be doomed to a life of poverty. As Lillith’s guardian, Leo could not let that happen. Still, he did not trust Aindreann with Lillith’s hand yet. Just as much as it was Leo’s job to prevent her from crashing down the societal ladder, he was to protect her as well. “I need to be sure of Aindreann’s intentions before I agree to anything,” he finally stated after a long, cold silence.
“Understandable,” Connan nodded. “There must be some sort of agreement we can come to.” Leo wasn’t well versed in the ways of handling such affairs. What was an agreeable approach? He had the inkling that no matter what he chose to do, Lillith would hate him for it. Rubbing his forehead and leaning against a fence post, Leo suggested, “What if she came to live with ye for a while? So she can learn the lay of the land, and see how she takes to Aindreann. As long as all goes well, they will marry.” Connan smiled. “Fantastic idea. When shall she leave?”