Highlander's Prize(6)

By: Mary Wine

“She’s dead and buried,” Clarrisa insisted.

“Aye.” Maud crossed herself. “But kings do not obey the same rules as other men. James wants the marriage annulled, and he’s sent gold to the pope to see the matter resolved.” Maud turned and considered her. “You might do very well for yourself if you please him. Perhaps I am wrong to judge you. Scots do like fire in their women. Your brazenness might be just the way to keep his attention.”

With a wimple wrapped around her head and under her chin, Maud looked like a bride of Christ, or a bitter abandoned mistress. Clarrisa picked up the empty bucket and hid her smile of amusement. It wasn’t wise to make an enemy of the woman, even if she was no more than another person trying to see Clarrisa’s worth.

It seemed to be the way of life among the nobles. Clarrisa turned to the door and went down the narrow stone steps. There was only a single candle flickering near the base of the stairs. Considering that the king was in residence, the tower was strangely quiet. The single servant she’d spied in the hallway had not returned.

But James III was a king with many unhappy subjects. Margaret of Denmark had been a popular queen. James was quite the opposite, earning the anger of many of his clans because of his lack of justice. Not that his people’s discontent would save Clarrisa from what her kin had sent her to do. She hooked the bucket onto a rope and sent it down the well opening. Her fingers ached from the frigid water, but she preferred it to what the rest of the night would offer.

She had been brazen, but she refused to repent. If her words delayed the distasteful event planned for her, she’d happily be thought as any number of sinful creatures. Everyone she had ever met thought something of her, and most of the time their ideas weren’t kind. They judged her, when it was her father’s sin that had brought her into the world bastard-born. But kings and nobles often believed they had rights beyond what the church said they did. Her mother had been a knight’s daughter, and when the king took her to his bed, she had had no right to refuse.

Clarrisa stopped while pulling the bucket back up and listened. Something filtered through the stone walls, some sound she couldn’t quite identify. She held still, waiting for another hint, but all she heard was the wind. The bucket was almost to the top, and she gave the rope another tug to complete its journey. She unhooked it and turned away from the well.

The bucket’s contents went spilling onto the floor. Where before there had been nothing but empty space, men now stood in the darkness, cast half in shadow; huge figures that sent a shiver down her spine.

“Christ Almighty! That’s cold.”

A portion of the floor was missing and the rushes gone as a trapdoor showed how the men had got into the tower. One huge form climbed out, shaking his head and sending water flying.

“Why are ye the one screaming, Shaw? I expected the lass to do the yelling.” In spite of his teasing words, there was a solid core of strength in his tone that sent her back a step. He was clearly accustomed to being obeyed, and the men coming up through the trapdoor all looked to him.

Shaw growled and wiped more water off his face. “She’s holding her tongue so as to no’ warn her lover, that bastard James, that we’re here, Laird.”

There was only a single lantern lit to help her see to her chore, but the light flickered off Shaw, illuminating the determination on his face. His hand rested on the hilt of a dagger tucked into his worn belt.

“He is not my lover, nor do I want him for such.” Her voice quivered just a tiny amount. Clarrisa forced herself to face them. She’d not die a sniveling coward.

The laird chuckled, but it was not a pleasant sound. “There’s a fact I plan to ensure does nae change by stealing ye away before His Royal Highness notices ye are taking too long with his bathwater. But if ye’re speaking the truth, ye can prove it by coming along with us without a fuss.”

His hair was longer than the English wore theirs, some of it resting on his broad shoulders. It was light colored, but the candlelight illuminated copper in it. For a moment she was tempted, relief filling her, but the way Shaw still gripped his dagger made her hesitate. Her thoughts raced, and her heart did too.

“Steal me… To what end? You can murder me here as easily as on the banks of a river.”

He shook his head, drawing a short grunt from Shaw. The laird snapped his head around to stare at his man. “MacNicols do nae settle their disputes by spilling the blood of women. We’re set to prevent her from becoming the king’s leman. Stealing her will satisfy that need.”