An excerpt from Chapter One of Highland Sacrifice book two in the Highland Wars series...
IN less than a week, over one hundred warriors vying for the titles of Prince and Princess of Sìtheil were dead.
In less than two weeks, Ceana MacRae had gone from being the sister to a laird, to a mourning sister, laird herself and now princess of the realm.
In less than a day, she would be known as either a potential good ruler or a weak one.
An enormous amount of change in such short time. She’d not yet become accustomed to any of it. The only steady, solid pillar she had was the man standing beside her, and even he was new. She glanced at him from the side, taking in the strong, square cut of his jaw, the crispness of his shirt and the pleat of his plaid. His dark hair curled at the base of his neck, the ends still damp from bathing. He was impressive, handsome and only she knew that inside the hulking muscles and fierce warrior was a man with a heart.
Macrath’s dark blue gaze flicked to hers, confidence in their depths.
They entered the great hall through the small stair that led specifically up to the main chambers on the floor above. The carved double doors to the mighty hall were not yet opened to those outside. Two guards stood, weapons in hand before their wood-and-iron height.
Soon the hall would be filled with the people of Sìtheil who’d come to pay their respects, their taxes and to place their grievances with the new leaders. Ceana had never sat in for the entire gathering when her brother or her father held court, but long enough that she had an idea of what went on.
Seated on the dais in a long row were the five ruling council members—Lady Beatrice and her four male counterparts. They were dressed in their finest and studied Ceana and Macrath as they entered the great hall, taking in every minute detail from their heads down to their toes.
She hated them all. If she’d the power of the gods, she’d strike them where they sat and watch as flames licked at their flesh.
A shudder passed through her. Rare was it that she thought so violently, but when it came to these five, there was no limit to the malice Ceana was capable of concocting. After what they’d put her and hundreds of others through, she was certain she could never look at any of them without wishing them a violent end. They were not the first of the royal council members, but they’d been for many years and meted out atrocity after atrocity to the people of Sìtheil and those who came to fight for their place to rule.
Beatrice caught her eye, and there was a flicker of something disturbing in their dark depths. This woman held many secrets, knew things about Ceana’s past that she did not share with her. Information regarding Ceana’s mother. One day, when she and Macrath had established their power and had the backing of an army, she’d take Beatrice in hand and demand the information.
That day would be very soon.
Ceana and Macrath ascended to the dais and stood before the two throne chairs in the center, just in front of the council. She would have to endure their close proximity for the whole of the day, as that was how long they expected the court proceedings to take.
Three clerks sat to the side of the raised dais, behind a table. They would collect taxes and record who had paid and what it was they’d given.
Lady Beatrice rose and waved to the guards, who stood before the closed doors of the great hall. One guard withdrew from inside his shirt a large iron key on a chain that hung around his neck. He nodded to his counterpart and they unlocked the doors.
Why was it the great hall had to be locked from the inside?
During the games this had not been the case. Was it because the people of Sìtheil could not be trusted? What exactly had they inherited from the previous rulers?
In the silence of the hall, the click of the lock echoed ominously.
The doors were pulled slowly open by the guards, the hinges wrenching loudly. Every sound seemed to reverberate off the rafters, exacerbating the noises. Ceana’s hands were cold, and she was certain her face was pale, but she kept her shoulders straight, refusing to show any sign of weakness.
At least she had no need to worry over the guard who’d been bent on abusing her during the games. The moment they’d been crowned, Macrath had seen to it that the man would never return.
“Bid them enter,” Lady Beatrice said, her voice strong.
Moments later, a line of people began filing into the hall. Men, women, children. Most of them looked ravaged and ill-used. The sight of them broke Ceana’s heart. Their clothes were threadbare, and with winter only weeks away, they had to have been frozen outside. In fact, several children’s teeth chattered, their tiny lips blue.
Dirt and bruises marred much of their flesh.
These people were not well cared for.
“Serfs,” Macrath mouthed to her.
Ceana nodded. How was it she’d not been aware that there were serfs? At home, they’d never had anyone bound to the land for their lifetime. They worked together as a clan, a family.
But that must be the difference between a clan that ruled themselves and a clan that was ruled by a cruel royal council. Her throat tightened with emotion, and she gestured to a waiting servant for a cup of wine. At least these people would not be serfs any longer. They would set them free.
The line stopped about fifteen paces from the dais, and the guards shouted a warning for all those outside to cease their process.
“This is the first royal court of the Prince and Princess of Sìtheil. Until now, we’ve not had a royal seat within this castle, nor one as your direct overlord. Bow to your prince and princess,” Lady Beatrice said.
Those in line quickly got to their knees, their heads bowed.
“Give them your loyalty and thou will not be punished for insolence,” said Beatrice.
The people trembled and nodded. None of them would make eye contact. They were terrified. That didn’t sit well with Ceana. She didn’t want to be that kind of leader. Clans were like family. They looked out for each other. If the majority of the people were afraid to even look her way, what kind of a family could they be?
Ceana straightened her spine and handed the wine back to the waiting servant. Beside her, she noticed that Macrath, too, had stiffened.
“Before the proceedings begin,” Macrath cut Beatrice off and Ceana had to press her lips hard together not to smile. The councilwoman had already overstepped her bounds, an obvious attempt at showing her power. “The princess and I would like to announce that you are all free. We have banished serfdom from Sìtheil. If you owe a debt you wish to repay, we will honor it. If you wish to return to your homeland, we will honor it. If you wish to stay, we welcome you with open arms.”
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