The Marriage Alliance
Scottish Highlands, 1256
Surely, Ailsa Cameron never managed anything in her score of a lifetime so wicked to deserve this cruel punishment. She never took the life of another. Admittedly, she dozed through a few masses in her lifetime. Others were guilty of such sin and never punished so harshly. Maybe, it was the many times she took the Lord’s name in vain. That vile curse hadn’t passed her lips for some time, not since her last penance forbade her from speaking for a sennight. Although Ailsa remained silent until the noon meal, her guilt lingered. That did not warrant her wedding the dreaded Duncan MacLean.
Nay, she journeyed along this stone-littered tract to the MacLean fortress because of men and one in particular, her father—Laird Cameron. His fierce desire to merge with the Spartans of the North appointed Ailsa the maiden sacrifice to appease the ferocious dragon. Who was the dragon—her father or her husband-to-be?
Either way, Saint Peter would throw open the pearly gates for her since Ailsa behaved as the dutiful daughter, pledging the rest of her days to Laird MacLean.
Not that she had many days to live.
MacLeans would rather kill a Cameron than share the air…of course after they cut out her tongue.
Especially since bloodthirsty MacLeans enjoyed a savory meal of human flesh.
Would her tongue be roasted before consumed or eaten raw?
No doubt raw.
That meal probably accounted for the clan’s immense proportions. Few men towered over highland men yet most highlanders struggled to stand shoulder to shoulder with MacLean men. Muscular forms of others appeared scrawny beside the mighty MacLeans. And the women were no smaller, just about the height of an average highlander, convenient since both sexes lugged around basketfuls of enemies’ fingers. Ailsa strained to reach her brother’s wide shoulders. She’ll never fit in.
She wanted to escape to the mountains rising in the distance behind her. If she veered her mare around, she could gallop away to her freedom in the harsh environment, where she could starve to death or, if luck were on her side, be eaten by wild animals.
Maybe, it wasn’t too late to be a bride of Christ. She could live in a convent and not starve or have her flesh ripped apart by the sharp fangs of wolves. Then again, the nunnery might not be the best place. Even though Ailsa perfected the serene visage her talents rest elsewhere. Besides, she had slumbered through a quite a few more masses than she admitted. Another sin she added to her mental count. Taking the veil would be a disaster for her and the nuns.
So, Ailsa rode onward, up the cresting hill. The impressive fortified castle soared on the rocky outcrop overlooking the sea loch at the path’s end. A towering curtain wall hugged the craggy contours as the loch’s water lapped gently against the rocks. Harsh highland elements weathered the structure’s limestone to a mixture of grays, browns and whites cloaking the structure with the dismal aura Ailsa believed her life would become once behind its walls.
Even her gentle mare, dismayed by the sight ahead, stumbled on a stone strewn on the trail meandering to the gatehouse and her doom.
“We shall be well, Joy.” Her mare tossed back her head and neighed, not believing her.
Patting her lean crest, she peeked through the veil of her hair to her father. He wore a pleased look on his face that bode ill for others. She glanced at her elder brother. Alec sent her a tentative smile then turned his gaze. He was as happy about this marriage as she was. As the heir, Alec tried to persuade their father from his determined course but to no avail. Father had a plan and his children must submit to his commands.
“Come along,” Laird Cameron demanded, placing himself between the two siblings. She sucked in a lungful of crisp highland air, slowly exhaling until the straining muscles in her face eased. Unlike the countless other times, her calming technique failed so she decided to ignore him.
Glancing upward to the lofty battlements, she spotted two heads. Oh God’s eyes, she forgot that gruesome tale! She gawked. Her eyes bulged and she swallowed her squeak.
MacLeans decorated their parapets with their enemies’ heads on spikes as a warning to those foolish enough to attack. For the rest of her short days, she’d have to see ghastly heads…until she was propped next to them.
“By marrying the brute, my influence will extend into these lands. Girl, you’ve been an annoyance since your first breath.” Laird Cameron snarled the exact words he grumbled since her first breath. “Finally, you serve some good.”
He grunted at her relieved sigh, believing she listened to him. But it rushed out when the heads moved, thanks to the very alive bodies attached.