“Kill her! Kill the murderous wench!” There were screams of fury and a loud cacophony of voices teeming in the hall as Rosin stumbled down the passageway, the constant shove of the man behind her leading her way. He pushed her off the stairs and then yanked her into the great hall before everyone.
The noise swarmed around her; the anger, accusations, denials. She couldn’t make sense of how quickly this had happened. The room only grew louder and confused her more.
Another man appeared at her side, to help hold her in front of the raised dais for the view of the laird. For judgment.
Who could have done this? If she could only pinpoint the real murderer. Her mind scrambled over every detail, trying to snag on anything that could save her.
Her hair had fallen loose in a fiery cascade. Rosin became minimally aware she wore naught more than her woolen shift, since she had not been allotted the time nor thought for other clothing. She should feel ashamed, but feeling would take too much from her at the moment.
Why bother to feel ashamed when surely they would kill her shortly.
“T’was poison,” a man said as he came rushing down the stairs and into the hall. “The healer has examined Gorath. She believes t’was poison,” he cried again and again as he weaved among the crowd so all would hear.
Rosin shook violently in the hands of the two men holding her. They’d locked her arms at her sides in their steely grips, keeping her from fleeing, though she entertained no thoughts of being able to, anyway; were she to try, surely she would fall face first on the rushes. Her legs far too weak at the moment, fear had taken root as she neared her demise for a crime she hadn’t committed.
There were many people gathering to mourn and to point accusingly, but at last Roark appeared at her side, bringing a wrap to cover her. He pulled her to him protectively, ripping her from the clutches of the other men, his foreboding scowl and fierce stare forcing them to let him take her into his protection.
“There is nothing suggesting my sister played any hand in this!” The anger etched across his face surprised her as much as the sound of his bitingly sharp voice, his words were heard above all others and carried up to the laird.
Roark turned on her. “Did you poison him? Tell me you didn’t,” he demanded in a hoarse whisper as he pulled the wrap snugger about her shoulders.
Rosin sucked in a sharp breath as a scuffle between two men erupted in the far corner of the hall, attracting their attention. Several joined in the ruckus as more tried to pull them apart, yet resulted in a larger brawl. She jerked her attention back to Roark. Fright filled her anew.
This was the first anyone had cared to ask if she had done this terrible thing or not. And this? Suspicion even from her brother? She’d heard the damning conviction in his tone. She was not fool enough to believe for one moment that any McBray might take her side of this tale into consideration. But Roark? How could he begin to think she might have done this?
“Nay, Roark, you ken I-”
“I ken how upset you were to wed Gorath, that is what I ken,” he said between clenched teeth. He dropped his voice so only she could hear, “I may have forgiven you for our last day with Father, Rosin, but I haven’t forgotten it,” he hissed. “You did not make any pretense about your desires to find another way to end the feud, yet I would not think you so addled as to murder your husband on your wedding night!”
“Please, Roark.” Her hands trembled as she laid them on his chest. “Take me from here now, while we can still flee. They will never believe us,” she begged. “They will kill me.”
“Nay, to run would only incur more of their wrath upon us. Wrath we cannot stand against. Thankfully, there are still other means by which to form an alliance, Sister.” He turned from her to address the Laird of the McBrays. “My sister declares her innocence. Perhaps the death of her husband was no crime, but the result of natural causes. Let us not make a hasty decision-”
An uproar churned through the room violently.
Many others began to clash together in their own violent debates, resulting in the sound of sickening blows coming from all directions.
Rosin yelped as Roark made to block her from an assailant, sending the man on his face in the rushes as he charged. Roark gave him a solid kick to the side and turned, at the ready to shield Rosin once more if needed.
“Enough!” Ronald McBray rose from his seat to pace the dais like a stalking wolf. The effect was not quite as fierce, as his age limited his movements. The old laird had advanced to an age where he could barely stand on his own, his once red hair had faded to white with the barest hint of its former color, and his pallor hadn’t improved since learning of the loss of his son. Naturally, he appeared ill.
He continued, “As much as I wish to say this cannot be, my son is dead." His aged voice trembled on the strong words. “And you and I, McPherson, we have a terrible crux, don’t we?” His agony etched across old, worn features.
“What is to be done for this then?” Roark demanded. “You cannot punish my sister. She is innocent, I tell you! I will not simply leave her here for your vengeance to be enacted as happened before generations ago.”
“How could you possibly-”
“I will yet see this truce upheld, for such was Gorath’s upmost wish,” a new voice startled them, having cut the laird short. “To stall for this unfortunate happening would not be wise.”
All eyes alighted on Gabhran McBray, standing on the steps to the dais, just below and to the right of the laird. He turned to address his father. “I want to take this woman as a handfast wife, if you would but allow the union. Gorath wanted nothing more than to see this truce upheld,” he stated in calm reason, then turned to address the crowd. “Indeed, the night before he died, he asked me to take this woman as my own should ever she need protection here. I gave my brother my word. Let us remember him well by keeping to his wishes.”
The Laird of the McBrays looked down on his son disbelievingly. “Nay, you cannot mean this,” he hissed. “Are you addled? Do you wish to end up like your brother?”
Roark took a step forward, a frenzied look about him at this new suggestion. “My sister will not be forced to stay here alone, not now, McBray. Find another way to see an end to the feud.” Roark tucked Rosin behind him, but she looked around his shoulder.
Rosin caught sight of Gabhran’s eyes alighting on her and his stare roamed down the length of her, in plain view to him from where he stood.
He contemplated her and Roark and then started toward them.
“I desire to have her, McPherson,” Gabhran stated bluntly. He stopped short, a mere few feet from them. “Who else might want her now, after this?”
Rosin’s breath stuck in her throat.
Gabhran smiled wolfishly at her as he slowly closed the distance. To her dismay, Roark stepped aside, though he remained close.
Gabhran lifted a strand of her loose hair and rubbed the strands between his fingers before letting her mussed tresses fall back to her hip. “What man wouldn’t desire her?” his deep brogue rumbled. “Such a lovely lass . . . I’m certain she would be well worth the trouble,” he finished lightly, so only she and Roark could hear.
A violent shiver racked her to the core.
Gabhran turned to face his father once more. “As we cannot say for sure if this lass had any hand in Gorath’s death, let us not be fools to accept blindly that any McPherson is to blame whilst another might still be about to do harm. Let the lass live, under my protection, and only if such evidence should come to light will the handfasting be ended, and this woman punished for the crime. Otherwise,” he turned to Roark, “at the end of a year and a day, she will become my wife in truth.”
A hush had fallen over the clans-people and remained for several long moments as Roark and Gabhran stared at one another.
At last, Rosin could bear no more. “Nay, Roark!” she pleaded quietly. “You cannot believe a word this barbarian says!” Truly, all craftily spoken silken lies!
Roark sighed hard, closing his eyes hard. With hands on hips he looked Gabhran squarely in the eye. “You give me your word, as a man and a Highlander, as a future Laird of your people, you will keep my sister safe and uphold the bargain of this truce?”
“Aye,” Gabhran said smoothly.
Too smoothly for Rosin to believe.
She threw a glare over her shoulder at the brute. He returned a wolfish smile, dripping of carnality.
“Will you allow this, Father?” he asked, not turning to his laird, instead keeping Rosin in his focus.
Pensiveness filled the hall as they looked between Roark, Rosin, and the McBray.
The laird sighed hard. “It was no secret my eldest was well into his years and liked his drink a little too much. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen him for such a young woman in the first place. But I am old and in need of lasting peace for my clan before I go. I need my sons to gain heirs, not die in some misbegotten squabble with McPhersons.” Ronald McBray looked away thoughtfully. “McPherson, I speak for my clan when I say-” he paused to eye all his men present there “-I wish peace between us.”
Rosin too looked between the two men, awaiting her fate with a knotted belly and trembling hands. Roark’s complexion had faded, but his jaw clenched tight in a hard line-a sure sign of his displeasure.
She had never wished to place him in this position, and yet, she was thankful she had a clean conscious at least, no matter what the others thought. However, that a potion of some sorts had been left where she had placed the parcel, in her haste as Gorath arrived, made her sicker still. The satchel was not at all concealed well behind the coffer and she had little hope she would be granted a chance to return for it, to cast the phial away where it could never be found.
Were the potion she’d hidden away mistaken for what had really killed Gorath . . . it would be most hindering to her claim on innocence.
Roark broke the heavy silence. “What will be my sister’s fate this night? Considering our history, I understand your suspicions, McBray. But on my word, she is innocent. My father’s last wish was to see this treaty upheld and for that I ken she would not have risked our people’s lives by any foolishness, especially murder.” His gaze raked cuttingly through the room, challenging all those with doubt coloring their vision. “If she is to handfast with this man I would have you ensure her protection tenfold than before. I wouldn’t want anyone hastily taking into their own hands a falsity of what they think justice, for I can assure there would be swift consequences.”
The laird regarded Roark a moment, almost lightly-as though he had not just been threatened-then he faintly nodded. “What my son suggests is a valid proposal. No evidence supports that the marriage between Gorath and she had been consummated before he died. It is as though they were never united.” A maidservant stepped forward with the bedding, stripped from the bed above, but the laird waved her away. “So be it, let her be handfasted to my second son, Gabhran, since he so desires her.” He held out an arm, sweeping it to his other son, though the look he cast to Gabhran ran on a cooler line. It was clear he did not agree to his son’s desire.
Gabhran remained stonily silent, yet Rosin didn’t mistake the masculine air of satisfaction for anything more than the man gleaning from having pulled this charade of wont over Roark and his father.
It was then she caught a sudden, sharp sneer from him. The look unmasked a hate the devil would envy for but a brief moment and then it was gone.
Rosin glanced fervently between the devil-of-a-man and her brother.
Roark would not meet her stare.
Being handfasted to Gabhran McBray would be worse than torture for her, she was sure, as this would indenture her loyalty to the McBrays. A simple way for them to keep her here without issuing any loyalty of their own, except that given by tongue and she, for one, would never trust their word.
He’d offered naught but a subterfuge, there would be no lasting truce with her clan and she doubted very much that was what he wanted. This would only last until he could decide how he really wished to act on this disaster. Or, likely, how he wished to kill her after her people had gone!
She was no fool!
By God, she’d told Roark this would never work.
Rosin looked about the hall, tears streaked hotly down her cheeks. Could one of the McBrays' own have killed their laird’s son to keep the feud going? she wondered. But to what advantage?
Was it possible she might ever clear her name?
“Roark?” She reached for him, but he caught her hand before she could touch his arm.
He turned, his shoulders squarely set and his expression stony, solemn--afraid?
“You will do this, Rosin. And I will hear no protest for your approval is’na needed.” He lowered his voice, “I ken your feelings on handfastings, but you’ve little choice here. Be thankful Gabhran offered this much, otherwise, I canna say they wouldn’t have killed us all this night.” His jaw ticked as he spoke. “Again, I would take your place here if I could. I would have offered my life if they would have allowed me to.”
Rosin forced herself to swallow any further protest.
Roark’s voice broke as he started again. “I could have protected you before. But Rosin, whether you had a hand in this or not, it is hard to believe you didn’t. And you’re my sister. Of my own blood. How can I expect anyone here to believe what you say after your sullenness this eve? After what happened when our grandmother came here for this very occasion and the same tale unfolded? Consider yourself lucky to be granted a second chance for you are faring exceptionally better than most would expect.”
Desperately Rosin shook her head in denial. “Roark, don’t you see? Isn’t this same tale happening a second time somewhat odd to you?” How she wished she could tell him of the unexpected wedding present she had received so he might better help her, but she feared of being overheard and of hearing his rebuke for her lapse in judgment. She never should have accepted the parcel, even though Lillith had given it to her; her trust immediately, foolishly, granted. Lillith was but used to deliver the parcel, as unknowing as Rosin of the contents.
“I was set up for this. We all were,” she hissed through her teeth. “I beg you not to believe them! I am not safe here no matter what they say,” she insisted.
For the first time, she noticed tears shimmering where they pooled against the lids of her brother’s eyes. Her fear twisted her insides into even tighter knots when he didn’t answer aloud, though his look spoke volumes.
This both pained and scared him as well.
He had only tried to do what was best, yet neither did he believe the McBray.
Roark had been right. No one would believe her, no matter the case. Yet, being left alone with these people could not turn her fate any better than going back to her own lands would.
The McBrays were barbarians.
As soon as Roark left . . . she would never see her brother again. If she went with Roark, they would be attacked before they made the gates.
Rosin choked on the conclusion as visions of slaughter engulfed her, but she stiffened her back. Her tears abated as she accepted she would become a sacrifice in truth now.
“McPherson, does this suit you? My word is given, let this be done if you’re so sure of her innocence. My son has made a generous offer, aye?”
Roark met the laird’s stare and nodded.
Ronald McBray sat down at the table then and pounding a fist there. Instantly, a serving girl rushed to fill his ale horn.
The McBrays’ word was law here and when he spoke again it wasn’t to one person in particular, but to the room as a whole. “Prepare my eldest’s body for burial. I welcome the McPhersons to stay through for the funeral rites, but by midday on the morrow you and yours should return to your own lands considering the unease unsettling my people now.”
Rosin’s hopes sank.
This was final. Her soul felt as though it had withered and died like a vine in the late autumn.
Roark merely nodded his acceptance again, though his gaze rested on the rushes now.
“Aye, ‘tis done then,” Ronald McBray bellowed to one and all.
That was all need be done for a handfasting. No sanctification from a priest was necessary for such a common arrangement.
A tear slipped down her cheek.
Rosin clutched at her brother’s back, her nails digging into the rich material of his cloak. She wished he would turn to give her some comfort once more, but he didn’t. Taking a deep breath, she risked looking over her shoulder to the man she had been handfasted to.
The man who practically owned her.
As if she were chattel.
As their eyes locked, she was shaken to her toes. This would be no arrangement for a simple treaty. It would be nothing less than hell itself. She might have found peace here before Gorath had died, but such could never happen now.
And he would insure it didn’t.
The McBrays’ son turned to her fully, a satisfied gleam in his eye, yet deeper she saw the darkness in his stare. An evil intent lurked in those depths.
Her breath caught and she sank deeper against Roark, so much so that he turned to nudge her away lightly, but seeing Gabhran’s chilling stare, Roark froze too. She sensed her brother’s unease, for he had no right to keep her from the man who was now as good as a husband to her. She had nowhere to go and not the will to risk defying this man at the moment.
“A year and a day, Rosin. Prove your innocence, by God!” Roark pleaded in a whisper. “If I can find a way to return you home a’fore then, I will. You have my word.”
Rosin quaked with fear.
Gabhran McBray closed the gap Rosin had made, towering over her menacingly. He reached to lift her chin with a crooked finger, looking her face over with coldness, as though he were assessing something he found distasteful.
Rosin had the incentive to rare back and snap at his finger with her teeth.
“Come, wife.” He jerked her to him before she could protest or summon the strength to resist.
Rosin panicked at the thought of him raping her, for surely he would.
She gasped as he pressed his lips into her hair. She turned from him as much as he would allow, but still he persisted so only she could hear his voice. “You will pray for your former husband to return from the dead for I will not be as he would have been to you. Make no mistake, for unlike him, I dinna care for beauty so much. I do not want you and I never will. Only cold hatred will you find in your new life. I swear it, you will be barren all your days, for I will never touch you. I will never love you, but you will see the others I will love and I will make it so that your envy and bitterness eat you alive. And God help me, I will never turn my back so trustingly as Gorath did. When I prove it was you who killed him, your death will be by my hand alone.” All was spoken with such white-hot fury, carefully controlled and contained into the barest tremble of his deep Scot’s burr.
When he pulled away, Rosin shakily released the breath she’d held while he spoke. She bit her lips to keep from crying out again.
Roark didn’t deserve to bear her pain.
Gabhran took her by the arm, dragging her away from Roark. Rosin let out a strangled sob, jerking her head around to stare pleadingly at her brother; racking fear overtaking her.
Roark took a hasty step toward her, but stilled. She caught one last look as her brother swiped a hand over his eyes to shield the view.
At this point, he could do no more than she could.
They both knew that.
©2013 Kerri M. Patterson