Highlander’s Sacrifice – Alisa Adams

Merith felt her body jolt slightly as the carriage hit another dip in the road. The muscles in the small of her back held tight, and her hands gripped the seat on either side of her knees. She smiled in a moment of excitement, relishing the limited time she had left outside of her father’s home. Her amusement dwindled, however, when she caught sight of sweet Ilya pressing a handkerchief to her mouth. “Are you well, Ilya?” Merith asked before she could calm her tongue. She immediately chastised herself for being a fool, as Ilya had always traveled ill. A woman more confident on her own two feet than being dragged behind a set of horses, Ilya’s skin took on a grey and eerie pallor whenever she was forced to ride within a cart or carriage. Merith had known this since she was a child. Yet, her natural compassion for the older woman had not seen her question restrained. Ilya seemed to recognize this, her eyes doting above a strained smile. She drew back the lace to speak. “Quite, mistress,” she assured the girl. Her expression was grace itself, her voice one of a calm disposition. Regardless of age, Ilya was Merith’s servant, and it had never seemed odd to them that the wiser of both was the one to bow her head. “But perhaps you would care to distract me?” Ilya suggested.

Smiling brightly, Merith drew her focus away from the open view of the grasslands outside and turned a caring look upon her maid. She reached forward to take Ilya’s hand in her own, the lace pressed between their joined palms. “I shall do what I can,” she vowed to the woman. “Pray, tell me.” As the woman asked for stories and tales, Merith was unsure how much of the request was for her servant’s sake and how much was for her own. Ilya might have been feeling ill and truly wish for the preoccupation of her thoughts, the diversion of far-off tales. But the lady’s maid was also highly skilled at tricking Merith into actions that benefited herself under the excuse of her maid’s desires. Merith knew herself to be a little lost when it came to self-care, and Ilya was talented in using her natural compassion to serve Merith’s favor when her own natural disposition would not. Not clever enough to decide whether her closest friend and surrogate aunt was now playing one of her smart little tricks or not, Merith capitulated to the request all the same. Concentrating for a moment, she closed her eyes and drew to mind the stories her mother had once told her at her bedside.

She saw the gossamer shapes of ladies and princesses, the flash of steely heroics, and the bright and charming smile of saviors in armor. The bedtime stories of her infancy had stayed with her throughout the years and now sat sweetly in her memories. They grew there, lush in the fertile soil of her imagination. They claimed texture and dynamism, complexity and tone. With each retelling, they grew in maturity as she did, her passion for stories and the simplicity of the fictional world, rendering them more polished with every incarnation. When she opened her eyes again, Merith’s lips were forming the beginning of one of her favorite tales, her hands carving images in the air. At first, Ilya listened with open spectatorship. She watched her charge as Merith grew impassioned. She noted how her features softened when she described the feminine ladies of old, and her sleek little brows would draw close when villains appeared. For all Merith’s faults as an elegant lady of worth, she was an avid storyteller and a creative speaker.

Ilya soon allowed herself to drift, her eyes closing and the strain around her lips dropping away. Such a pretty voice to be lulled by… Merith did not take offense when Ilya’s breathing steadied out and grew deep. Given her maid’s temperamental nature when on long journeys, she instead felt a swell of warm pride that she had managed to ease her friend into peaceful rest. At least, for now. Once the carriage reached the main road, Merith knew that the journey would ease. The wheels of their cart would find a surer path, and the bumps and grinds of the carriage would be fewer and further between. Only this section of the expedition—up from the valley of her sister’s home—suffered from a path ill-traveled. Strangely, Merith was glad for the crooked path and the road’s shifting bounce. Amongst a land such as this, it was a single blemish on a province so pretty—a single, unique reminder of reality in a wild sort of paradise. During her visit with her sister, Merith had been given a full tour of the realm ruled by the MacDonald clan, from the sloping ruts that housed wooly livestock to the pretty, green dales of wildflowers and heather.

Kathleen’s new home, the township that her husband managed, was both quaint and profitable. It lounged in a fetching valley, nestled in idyllic countryside. Its only flaw was the rocky path that took visitors to and from the main road—the only imperfection in her sister’s new lands; in her sister’s entire life. Born the final child of six, Merith was fully aware of what it meant to be flawed. For each of the few triumphs she had made in her seventeen years, her sisters had brokered the success first. For each mistake made along the way, she was reminded of how Kathleen or Elizabeth had not fallen for such a misstep in their youths. With three sons dividing the sisters from one another, isolating Merith in her position as the last born, it was as if her parents had forgotten the errors surely made by Kat and Ella. It was only Merith’s mistakes that had stood the test of time, with no younger offspring to rewrite over them with their own challenges. Of her sisters, Kathleen was the most assuredly perfect. She possessed an elegant height and carriage, and her hair was a glorious red and hung about her shoulders in ringlets.

Her flashing blue eyes were bold and royal in tone, and her figure was buxom and womanly. She was quiet but intelligent, sweet but beautiful, strong but loyal. She was every delicate thing that a man could want and had, in her own turn, made a match more profitable than any other, in the form of a nearby laird. Now, she and her new husband expected their first child in the spring, a child approaching the world without effort or issue. Kathleen was the perfect woman of wealth, status, beauty, and demure delicacy. Merith looked out of the carriage window as she tried not to contemplate the differences between herself and her eldest sister. Where Kat’s riotous red curls were so glorious upon the top of her head, Merith’s blonde locks were so fine that they slipped from their moorings at every given opportunity. Where her sister’s features were striking, Merith’s were fragile, sweetly rounded, and pouting in the lips. Ilya had often called the young girl’s appearance ethereal. Her brothers called her infantile.

And her mother often lamented that her face lacked anything that would create some form of “presence.” Merith sighed. She felt her cloak shift about her shoulders and a soft brush against her neck as another lock of her hair fell from the soft knot at her crown. Oh, for want of a little presence and a little notice… Distracted from her thoughts, Merith blinked as she spied a dark shadow moving through the meadow beyond. The road along which they traveled was flanked by steep and dark woodland on one side and then descended into the dale on the other. Wildflowers and thistledown were rampant along the heath, and yet a lone rider careened his way through the underbrush with all confidence, heading for the road ahead of them. He rode with a sureness that transferred to his animal, the horse beneath him ne’er stepping a hoof wrong. It was still early in the morning, and the sun was rising from the eastern horizon, turning the rider into a dark outline, the morphed shape of a single entity. She remembered tales of a traveling bard some years ago, speaking of mythical creatures in the European lands. She was reminded of one—half man, half horse—as she watched the lone figure canter through the green.

She was about to turn back, to see if Ilya was once more awake, and offer such a fanciful thought for her diversion, when the carriage suddenly lurched. It rocked with a clatter and shake that brought fear to Merith’s heart. She was thrown against the side of the cart, hard, and Ilya was jolted awake. She looked around with a tense gaze, unable to clear her mind when the cart shook back the other way. “What is happening?” Merith cried, fear in her voice as she tried to brace her hands upon the seat. The thundering pound of hooves approached behind them, and Merith’s startled gaze found Ilya’s. Male voices called out, but they were not the familiar timbre of the guards that had accompanied them since the MacDonald estate. They were harsh and slurred with ill-breeding. They barked directives and warnings, muffled perhaps by scarfs or masks. The sunlight to the east was blackened, for a moment, as a rider charged past Merith’s window, and she screamed at the sight of the dagger at his hip.

Ilya reached out for her, and Merith went willingly. Her arms wrapped around the woman, her head held to her breast. The voices shouted orders, and the horses shifted and stirred. The carriage rocked hard upon its wheels. Something was happening. These men—these strangers—were taking over the carriage. Where were the guards? Merith squeezed her eyes closed, calling herself a fool for the innocent way she so often told stories of ruffians and vagabonds. She painted their cruelty as a game, a challenge to be fought off with all the assurance of a happy ending. Just where was a real hero when one was needed? Finding herself to be praying into Ilya’s breast, it took a moment before Merith noticed a turn in the noises outside. Barking calls of demand shifted into startled cries of surprise.

The fearful gallop of the horses was stilled to an unsure and awkward trot. The hooves hit the ground out of unison, and the carriage shuddered on its frame. Merith was nauseated with all the rocking, but Ilya made no complaint. She was too frozen in place to say or do anything. When she heard the clash of metal, Merith jumped and wrapped her arms tighter around her maid, seeking comfort and security. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her fingertips were set to tremble. Who were these men? Were they thieves? Or worse? Where were her guards? Were they fighting against the aggressors? What was it that the trespassers wanted? Jewels, silks…her? Would her body be sullied? Would she be taken for lustful purposes? What of Ilya? Would she suffer too, or would she be stripped from Merith and sold? With a creative imagination came fanciful fears, and Merith was lost to the terrors of her mind. Ilya said nothing, perhaps too fearful of speaking her worries as the noises of fighting grew louder. Instead, she stroked at Merith’s hair, heedless of the fir leaves and honeysuckle that had been threaded through the locks that morning. They were crushed against her chest, and the perfume of the broken flowers tempted Merith’s nose.

She felt tears reaching her eyes and chastised herself for being a coward. Her sisters would have borne such things with more grace. No matter the fear, no matter the danger, her sisters were always calm. They held the image of dignity and grace, no matter the threat. They were brave. Merith closed her eyes against her cowardice. As the cart came to a juddering halt, one wheel in a ditch and the body of the vessel held at an awkward angle, Merith risked a glance at the window angled up towards the treetops. The curtains had fallen into place, and only a wedge of white light broke through. She saw an approaching shadow, tall and robust, dark against the sun, and felt her heart jump into her throat. Merith swallowed against the mass but could not break it, fearing that the tears would soon fall.

She could not prevent the startled cry that ripped from her lips, nor the way she turned in to her caring maid as the door was wrenched open, and a dark face peered in upon them.

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