Sacrificing his Highland Heart (Preview)
Lyttletyne, Northern England, April 1551
“Miss, you have been gone again for quite a long while. You worry Mrs. Drummond, now that you’re here on your own.”
Rose Sayer’s young maid, Mary, stood on the doorstep of the manor, clutching her hands tightly with concern. Rose laughed as the groom helped her down from her horse. Brushing a lock of her dark hair away, she smiled and patted the brown mare’s soft velvet coat before the groom took her away.
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry for that.” Rose looked up at the bright sunny day and shielded her green eyes. “She has been good to me since Father and Henry left.” Mrs. Drummond was the housekeeper and had looked after Rose like a mother, ever since her own mother had died a few years before.
Mary smiled as Rose turned back to the house. Rose had never thought she’d have to care for the household on her own for so many months, but it came to her easily, she found. Even if her riding about the estate worried the housekeeper. Her father had never been away for so long in the last nine years of the war, but the last time he’d left, he’d been gone almost six months.
“I shall do my best to make up for it. She knows that I do what is right for the estate.”
“Yes, Miss, but I think she wishes you would take a groom with you. For safety’s sake.”
“And propriety’s sake.”
Mary took Rose’s cloak as she entered the house. “Mary, will you send tea to the study?”
“Thank you. Tell Mrs. Drummond she may come and see me as well.”
Mary curtsied and left to follow her orders, and Rose sighed, happy to have dispatched at least one duty. She would apologize to Mrs. Drummond, and then all would be well again. She brushed her hands together as she walked down the corridor to her father’s study, which had become hers since the care of the estate had been left entirely to her.
Her father had left strict instructions, and she wanted to show him that all was well and cared for while he was away. It had been a monumental task when he’d first explained things to her, and she remembered taking furious notes as he spoke. Her hand had cramped for days afterward. But with each passing day, she had grown more and more accustomed to it. Even though she told no one about it, she rather enjoyed the freedom and independence when there were no men around.
“There is no one to say nay to anything,” she said cheerily to herself as she sat down, her gown billowing behind her father’s large wooden desk.
The freedom and independence were almost intoxicating, like having had too many cups of wine at dinner. In the deepest part of her heart, she wished for this time to last a little longer, not wishing for her brother or father to come to any harm, of course.
She began to hurriedly scrawl in a small notebook about matters of the estate. War was upon them and had been for many years. However, due to her father’s high status as a landed knight and his age, he had not been called until recently to fight. So, the estate was covered in women, and Rose had wanted to do her best by them, making sure they were safe enough and protected and fed while their men were off doing their duty. To her surprise, and she was convinced that her father would also be surprised, the women had done well on their own, working just as effectively if not more so.
“It is because they do not have a man to hound them day and night.” She kept scrawling until there was a scratch at the door, and Mary entered with a tray of tea.
“Here you are, Miss. And Mrs. Drumm—” The older woman appeared suddenly in the doorway, looking, as usual, slightly frayed and frazzled. Mary curtsied and left the room without another word. Mrs. Drummond closed the door behind her to stand in front of Rose with her hands together.
Rose noticed how white her knuckles were turning. “Mrs. Drummond, I do apologize for having upset you, but this is usual behavior from me. You know this.”
“Yes, Miss Rose. But…” She bit her lip, and Rose frowned, never having seen her so agitated before. She laid down her quill and folded her hands over the desk.
“What is it?”
“It is just that I have heard the men will soon be returning. There have been rumblings, and I should hate to have you out and about, wandering the countryside on your own, if your father and brother were to return. After I promised your father that I would look after you. He would not be pleased.”
Rose lifted a brow. “You promised my father?”
“He asked me to, Miss Rose, and I happily accepted. You know how much I care for you.”
Rose smiled and dipped her head. “Yes, I do. It does not go unnoticed. I heard tell that the men would be back soon, but we have had such false news in these uncertain times that I was loath to believe it.” She looked down, suddenly fascinated by the vine design of her green gown. Even though the independence of running the estate had made her feel freer than she ever had, she still worried each day what news might come of death and loss. Of someone telling her that she was now alone in the world, for her mother had died many years before.
“I do not like to hope, you know,” she said softly, hating the choking feeling of tears in her throat.
“Yes, I know.” Mrs. Drummond came to her side and put an arm about her shoulders. “But I think we can hold a little bit of hope. Just a little. To sustain us. And I hate to think about you, about something happening to you out there.”
“I have to keep up the spirits of the women on the estate, Mrs. Drummond. You know that. They’ve been alone for so long, and I have only been alone for just a few months.”
“Not alone, dear. Never alone.” Mrs. Drummond winked at her, and Rose felt something unfurl in her chest.
“Thank you, Mrs. Drummond. I promise next time I go riding, I’ll take a groom with me.”
After she made a promise, she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep, the house erupted into sudden chaos. Footsteps pounded in the hall, and a man’s voice rang across the stone walls.
“Henry,” Rose breathed, and she squeezed Mrs. Drummond’s hand before gathering her skirts and rushing out to the hallway to meet him. Her pace was so quick that her coif nearly fell from its pins, and she grasped it, hurrying to find the voice.
“Rose!” Henry called, and she finally saw him at the end of the entryway, looking breathless and dirty. She had never seen him thus, even after years of playing in the woods and in the river. He had never looked so tarnished and weary, broken almost by the new weight of the world.
“Henry,” she said again and rushed into the warm comfort of his arms. She closed her eyes at the feel of him again. He smelled of horses and sweat and earth. He was her near-twin, even though he was her older brother. He, too, had the Sayer black hair and bright green eyes. When he pulled away, she noticed that his dark beard had grown, and there were new dark circles under his eyes. He was only 24, but the war had aged him.
“My dear Rose. You are well and fresh.” He lifted his hands to her cheeks, and she felt the fresh roughness of them, broken by wielding a sword.
“You, Henry, you survived. Brought back to me.” She smiled, and tears were in her eyes. Independence was very well and good, but nothing could replace the warm feeling of a loving family. He stroked a thumb across her cheek and nodded, but as she stared into his eyes, she knew the truth. There was some secret, something he held back.
Her stomach clenched as she bent her head to look around him down the hallway. “Where is Father? Has he not come with you?”
She could hear the rush of servants moving to their duties now that the son of the manor had returned. When she moved her eyes back to her brother, she saw a new sadness in them and the grim line of his mouth.
“Father, Rose, he….” He trailed off, and Rose stood tall and bit back her tears. After all, her time in charge of the manor meant she could now be taken seriously. She was not simply the daughter of a knight, living only in luxury and left to frivolous activities. She could be trusted with more complicated things.
“You can tell me, Henry,” she said with as much confidence as she could muster, patting his strong shoulders.
“He lives. Do not worry on that score. But he was taken.”
“Taken.” Rose moved a hand to her stomach, feeling suddenly ill like the floor had been taken out from under her. But she set her jaw. She would remain strong. No matter what happened. “Taken by whom?”
“By a Scottish laird at the northern border. He is a brute.” Henry spat as he spoke, and Rose chided him for it.
He looked shamefaced. “Forgive me, Rose. I have broken myself on the front, forgetting the manors of polite society.” There was a strange attempt at a grin, and Rose shook her head.
“Tell me more.”
“May we sit?” He asked, looking suddenly years older and just as weary.
“Oh, of course. Forgive me, Henry. Come,” she waved to Mrs. Drummond, who was never very far away. “We will sit in the drawing-room, here, Mrs. Drummond. The fire is high enough. Please have the maids prepare a bath in my brother’s chamber, as hot as it can be, and bring food and drink, both tea and wine.”
“Yes, Miss Rose. It is being done as we speak.”
Rose nodded, knowing that Mrs. Drummond would take care of everything, but wanted to make sure. Henry was watching her with a sort of confusion, surprise, and she hoped respect.
She led him to a seat by the fire, and she moved to poke at the wood, hoping it would increase in heat and flame and keep her brother from looking like death’s door. Henry was still watching her. “You have grown, Rose.”
Rose turned around and instantly blushed. Henry was never one for compliments, but she could hear from his tone that he meant it nicely. “Grown?” she said with a smile. “Aged, you mean?”
She sat down in the other chair and leaned back against the wood, feeling comfort in its strength. The news of her father could be even direr than what her heart felt, and she needed the physical feel of support in her hands.
“Not at all. Although there is something new in you. A calmness of sorts. Or a strength.” He breathed out slowly and tiredly. “I shall tell you all.”
She nodded and leaned forward to listen to him. His eyes were nearly fluttering closed. She knew that he had ridden far to return to her, to return home and to share his news. “France, as we feared, came to Scotland’s aid, and England has now had to remove her troops from Scotland’s land. We have ceded the capture of Scotland’s territories, and it is like blood draining from a wound, soldiers, and men returning to our homeland, weak and broken. Those who survived that is.”
Rose nodded, even though she felt it was a good thing for war to be over and that the women on her land would be reunited with their husbands once more. Some would enjoy it, but she knew of some whose bruises had faded at their husbands’ departures, that they might not be as happy to see them darken their doorways again.
Henry continued, folding his hands across his stomach. “Father and I fought side by side. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was a dream of mine for so long.” She could hear the sound of pain in his voice, and tears sprung to her eyes at the thought of her father in battle. She knew he would look glorious, fighting and commanding his men. The memory of a time long ago when he’d showed her how to hold a sword flickered in her mind.
“Hold it like this, Rose,” he’d said, grinning down at her. Rose was eight, and she felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have such a father who would teach her things and bring her into his life. “Hold it out, towards your enemy.” He leaned down and pushed her tiny feet into the right place and then crouched beside her, his strong arm touching her young one. “This is to threaten them. Then, you pull back, ready to fight off their first blow. It is good to allow them the first blow, and then you are ready to fight back once you deflect it.”
He stood up with another sword and slowly showed her what he meant. But they were interrupted by two things. The first was the sound of her mother’s voice calling from the doorway to the house. “Rose! You have forgotten your lessons!”
The second was Henry appearing from the other side of the barn, looking pale and angry. “Father, why should you teach Rose when you should be teaching me? I am the boy.”
Her father, never upset by anything, had merely chuckled. “I shall teach both my children,” he replied, pulling Henry close to him with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Women too should know how to defend themselves, right?”
Henry crossed his arms, and her mother called again. Reluctantly, Rose had left, hurrying back to her mother’s safe embrace, a heavy disappointment weighing on her. After her mother died a few years later, her father had given up his lessons, broken by the weight of his own grief. He had wanted to keep Rose safe and locked away ever since, afraid that he too should lose her.
“Rose?” Henry’s voice prodded into her subconscious, and she looked up at him, the wetness of tears still on her cheeks. Her father was so kind and gentle. The thought of being taken by a brute and subjected to God knows what made her feel cold and clammy.
“Sorry, Henry. I know that it was a dream of yours. A cherished dream. Please continue.”
“Well,” he said more slowly and leaned forward, grasping at her hand. “I fear that it is just you and I, dear sister.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, although she knew what his words meant. What those horrible words foretold.
“This Scottish laird has a very great reputation for being brutish and desiring to kill as many English as possible.” Henry swallowed, and Rose wished for a second that some way, somehow, she could halt the words in her brother’s throat, and it would make their truth not real. She could reverse time. “I fear that it is very likely that Father is dead, and now it will be just you and me.”
Rose faintly heard the clatter of tea things as someone entered the room before a loud sob escaped her throat.
Caerlaverock Castle, Seat of Clan Rede
Euan Rede was still fuming. His anger, the anger he’d been carrying around with him for years now, was bristling and tumbling off him like it was its own being. It had become fused to him, and now he regarded it as just part of who he was. Laird Rede, the man with a furious temper of a brute, with a reputation of being bloodthirsty. Reputations had a way of only showing half the truth, but he didn’t care to ruin it, for it had only made him a better and more fearsome warrior.
He leaned over the battlements of Caerlaverock Castle, staring off into the sea as if it could give him answers. Sometimes, he stood up there with the wind in his blond hair, hoping that his parents would return from Heaven for a moment and speak to him, to tell him his next moves. It had been eight years since his last parent died. He’d been 18 when his father had been killed by the English, but the pain was still underneath his skin, still feeling raw. He was alone in the world now, even though his men and his clan surrounded him. He had to make his own way, and now he did, with the capture of the English knight George Sayer.
“Laird,” a voice called from the doorway. “Ye wished tae ken when the prisoner was awake. He is now.”
“Good. I will go tae him in a moment. Donnae tell him anything,” he bit out.
The man bowed his head and left, and Euan turned back to the sea. It was gray from this distance, the last vestiges of winter still hanging in the air. It mirrored the way he felt most times. Gray and wild, without a clear direction or a way to go. He’d been muddling around in the dark, and if he was honest, the last years of war had helped to motivate him, to get him to focus on something else besides his own pain. He had been sent to fight after his father had been killed, and in some ways, had been the making of him.
He turned away from the sea and left the battlement, clenching his fist with a resolve to remove the dangers that the English still posed, even though they were leaving the territories of Scotland taken over the last years. His mind had one goal as he walked down the cold, stone steps to his castle’s dungeon, where his latest prisoner resided.
George Sayer, landed knight, living on the northern border of England on a large estate. He had chosen well in his captive, and he would force his way into matrimony with the man’s daughter if it killed him. Even though England had a treaty with Scotland, he would not let his family’s legacy crumble because of a future invasion. England was known for its treachery.
“Laird,” one of his guards said as they swung open the thick wooden door of the dungeon. “He is ready.”
Euan said nothing as he made his way to the large cell where the prisoner was chained to the wall. To his surprise, the man stood up and looked Euan straight in the eye. In his clipped English accent, he said, “It is not every day that a Scottish laird known for his brutality lets a man sleep before he questions him.”
Euan grinned and crossed his arms over his large chest, his cold blue eyes staring at the man completely under his control. “It is nae out of compassion for yer health, Lord Sayer if that is what ye are thinking. I merely wish tae speak on equal terms with a man when I give him a choice.”
“A choice?” Sayer’s tone was almost bored, as if he’d seen and done these sorts of things many times. He was in his fifties or sixties, but the strength was still in his body, and intelligence gleamed from his green eyes.
“Aye, a choice.” Euan stepped closer, that anger trembling anew through him, making his hands shake. He squeezed his arms tighter across his chest.
Take yer time, lad. Donnae let yer temper get hold of ye and ruin what power ye have.
“What is it you want with me? You are very young for a laird.”
Euan’s admonition to himself was lost in another wave of fury. His one hand moved to the short blade at his side. “I am young, for my father died years ago in the war. The English took him prisoner, as I have taken ye, and they cut his throat.” In a flash, he slid the dirk out and came close, leaning against the older man, pressing the cold steel blade against the man’s throat.
There was a flash of surprise in Sayer’s eyes, which gratified Euan, but he held tight to him, pressing the blade a little closer. “I would be delighted tae return the favor, ye ken.” His breath was right next to the man’s ears, and his voice spoke in a ragged, harsh tone. It would be sweet revenge to take this man’s life in the same way his father’s life had been taken, but he knew deep down that another death would not make any difference.
Another stroke of pain, another flash of anger. None of it ever made any difference to the cold hard truth. His father was dead and would not be returning. The English would be forever at fault and forever hated by him. After a few more seconds, Euan retracted his dirk and pushed against the man’s hard chest so that his chains jangled.
As he slid the dirk back into the sheath at his side, he said, “However, one more death willnae make a difference tae keep the lasting peace. I plan tae protect my land and my clan for the future when England decides tae turn treacherous once more.”
“What is that?” Sayer’s voice was rough. Euan knew he had bruised the man’s throat.
“A marriage alliance. It is only the way tae secure peace. Our borders are too close for my clan tae nae be in any danger. I will give ye yer freedom if ye give me yer daughter in marriage.”
Sayer’s face turned rigid. After a pause, he said, “How do you even know that I have a daughter ready for marriage?”
Euan grinned. “Ye have already told me by yer expression. But before yer capture, I spoke tae another one of yer men, who needed a bit of prodding tae tell me who had daughters ready tae marry.”
Sayer’s dirtied fists clenched just above where the chains wrapped tightly around his wrists. “I will not do such a thing. Kill me if you like for your revenge, but you shall not have my daughter.”
Euan smirked and turned away. He was not concerned. He would have his way. Sayer’s manor was the closest landed estate, and it was the best choice. “Have it yer way, Sayer, but I shall first send a message tae yer family tae let them ken how ye fare. See if they might be interested in making a deal for ye.”
Without letting George Sayer respond, he slammed shut the cell door and left in a huff. George may be an honorable man, giving his life for his daughter. Still, it wouldnae prevent Euan from going tae the English estate tae take the lass for himself tae force her intae marriage. He paused on the steps up to the main hall and put his hand on the stone. No, he could not do that. Not only did his conscience not allow him such a thing, but he knew that if his parents were alive, they would have shamed him for such a plan.
The lass would have to be willing to marry him to save her father’s life. He wouldn’t take someone who didn’t agree. It was not that he had plans to bed her anyway. It was a marriage in name only, just for the sake of protecting his clan for as long as he was alive. Besides, how could he produce progeny that was half-English? Well, an heir might cement the alliance, but he would have to think of that later. Now, he had to send the message to the Sayer family and hear what they had to say.
Henry had slept for nearly two days since his return, and it seemed, really, that nothing had changed since Rose was still in charge of all that ran on the estate. However, she knew that once her brother had recovered his health and strength, he would take over all the duties. She would return to being the sister, with nothing but embroidery and Bible reading to entertain herself. She was sitting in her father’s study when Mrs. Drummond entered the room.
“My dear Miss Rose. A message has come for you. Well, for all of you, and it’s arrived from Scotland.” The older woman swallowed, and Rose felt a hollowing in her chest. She stood and took the letter in hand.
“From Scotland,” she said slowly, trying to think of the countless reasons why she would receive a letter from there. It had to do with her father but how. She prayed for his safety as she tore open the letter. “Mrs. Drummond, please do summon my brother,” she said softly as her eyes scanned the rough words, written in seeming haste and fury.
Tae the Sayer Family,
Yer father is alive and well. Although, he is the key tae forming an alliance between us. I will let yer father live, but ye must give yer eldest daughter in matrimony tae me. That way, Scotland is aligned with England, and if war breaks out again, our clans and families will be kept safe from it. If yer answer is yes, then ye must come and meet yer father here at Caerlaverock Castle, tae the west of Gretna Green. It will nae take long, so ye have three days tae arrive here. If yer answer is no, ye may write tae me, and then yer father will lose his life. There is nae telling what may happen after.
Laird Euan Rede, Caerlaverock Castle
Her brother pushed open the door, looking more rested but slightly perturbed at having been woken. “What is it, Rose? Can you not handle small duties while I am recovering from war?” She ignored his irritated tone and handed him the letter, her face pale. She slowly sat down as she saw realization come over his face.
“A marriage alliance,” he said softly.
“Yes. Or father will die if we disagree.”
Rose sighed. She looked away, feeling numb at the thought of what a turn her life had taken, from one sort of prison to another. She turned back to Henry, who growled and then threw the letter into the fire. The both watched it for a time while it sparked into flame.
“That does not take away the decision we will have to make. Or the one I shall have to make?”
“You?” he asked, turning back to her, her eyes cold. “The brute would make a wife out of you, and you believe you are alone in making this decision. In father’s absence, I am the head of the family. I will make the choice.”
He began to pace, crossing and uncrossing his arms. His energy had doubled since his return, with good sleep and good food at his disposal. Yet Rose did not like to see her brother this way. He was often quite sour, and she had hoped to make a new start of things.
She stood up, trying to keep her voice as calm as possible. She knew what she had to do. “We will not leave father to die, Henry. Not when we had the choice to save him. I shall agree to marry this laird.”
“Said very much like a woman. Without thought or reason. Rose, you don’t even know this man.” Henry’s arms were open as if pleading with her to see sense. She didn’t mention that if Henry had chosen the man for Rose to marry, she was sure that he would not care if Rose knew him or not. “He has the worst reputation across Scotland and England. And for all that, he could be an old man as well.”
“Well, let us hope he is so that he will die soon, and I will be the head of his estate, and the alliance will remain true.”
Henry snorted. “Do not joke at a time like this.”
Rose sighed. Joking was the only way she could keep the tendrils of fear from wrapping around her heart and stopping her from doing what she must. “Henry, an alliance is a good thing. Like this man, we have no desire to return to years of war, not if we can find a way to keep our families and lands safe from another outbreak of it. I would say that Laird Rede has more intelligence than brutishness.”
Henry’s mouth dropped open. “You are being nonsensical. Will you not be unhappy being married to the enemy? A person from the land we fought so tirelessly against? Who killed our people?”
Rose shuddered at the thought of that. She didn’t want to be married to an evil man and be unprotected, but this was now something she could do. A way she could fight. “Henry, listen to me. I know it sounds like madness, but what options do we have? If we say no, he may kill father anyway and then find another way to get me to marry him. We are the closest estate to the Scottish border. It is not as if there is someone else, he could find that is at a location as close as ours.” She gripped her hands together, feeling them lose blood as she tried to keep her courage. “I will do this. I shall do this. Not just for father but for our family. For our land. For our legacy.”
Henry watched her with surprise for a few moments, and it almost looked like there were tears in his eyes as he moved closer and gripped her hand in his. “What if I challenged him to a sort of duel? We could battle it out?”
“You saw the letter, Henry. He should see your army coming from miles away and could pick you off as you arrived. No,” she shook her head, trying to strengthen her own resolve. “No, no, this is the best way.”
Henry pushed away and began to pace. “After such humiliating defeat on the battlefield, our own family is forced to endure another loss against the Scots! The savages! How could I possibly take such a blow?”
Rose could feel the tears coming. This was a very dear sacrifice, indeed, and after she agreed, she might very well regret it the rest of her life. But the thought of her father being trapped and threatened was enough to give back her initial resolve. “Henry, what about this? Once I am married to Laird Rede, he ceases to be an enemy. He is no longer simply a brutish Scot, but now he is an ally and a powerful one at that! And I can do something for you while I am stationed there.”
“What is that?” Henry was now staring at her full in the face, a furrow in his brow.
“I could act as a sort of spy for you. If there are rumblings of battles against England or any of that, you would be the first to know. You!” She was growing strength in this idea, for it helped distract her from her growing fear of becoming wife to a man she had never seen but heard of only of through his reputation.
Henry nodded slowly, and it seemed an age before he spoke again, but he stepped forward and took both of her hands in his. “If you’re sure about this, dear sister. If you are certain, then I don’t really see any other way.”
It was done. Her sacrifice in the battle had now been decided.
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