The 11th day of August
In the Year of Our Lord, 1308
The stench of blood and sweat and death permeated the air around the field. The victory here had assured Scotland's embattled king that he would gain the foothold he needed in the west and break the power of some of the more dangerous 'lords of the isles'. Thinking to ambush his troops as they made their way towards the coast, the MacDougalls had underestimated his abilities and those of his supporters.
As he stood before the man who had handed him victory at the battle of Brander Pass that morning, the Bruce was covered in not a little blood. Robert smiled grimly.
"You have your orders, Sebastien. Carry them out. Those who will accompany you to Dunstaffnage know their duties and will support anything you do there in my name."
His most trusted warrior and spymaster simply nodded as he always did and turned to leave. Sebastien of Cleish had presented him with their enemy's ambush plans and had strategized their response to it.
"Wed or dead by nightfall, Sebastien, and I'll be wanting proof of either one."
"Aye, sire. Wed or dead."
The warrior bowed to him and was already on his way out of the tent when he spoke the words. Robert took a deep breath before calling his squire to help him undress. Dunstaffnage Castle, the MacDougall's lands and his eldest daughter, the Maid of Lorne, would be within his grasp before the sun set this evening.
She'd closed the gates against him.
In spite of the messenger sent with the news of the Bruce's victory over her father, she refused him entrance into Dunstaffnage Castle. Sebastien was definitely leaning towards the 'dead' portion of his orders from the king as he sat outside the main gate. Letting out an exasperated breath, he motioned to one of the men surrounding the three sides of the castle facing the land and nodded.
Peering up to the battlements, he could see the eldest daughter of John MacDougall watching his every move. He pushed the helm and mail off his head and waited for their weapon to be brought forward. His horse danced beneath him, probably feeling the strain of the battle of wills going on around it. Sebastien was certainly feeling it. And, with the glare of the sun behind her, he could not quite get a clear look at his adversary.
Hearing the noises behind him, he moved over a few paces so that their hostages were clearly visible to all watching from the upper levels of the castle. The commotion behind him increased and he watched as Lara MacDougall drew nearer to the edge of the crenellated wall and looked over. She grabbed hold of the stone as though she needed additional support.
If he'd been the one watching his youngest siblings, wrapped in chains and dragged by the heavily-armed warriors of their deadliest enemy, he might react badly, too. The young boy and girl were also screeching loud enough to be heard by anyone within miles.
His quarry stepped back from the wall and he lost sight of her for a minute before she leaned out again. Sebastien could hear the argument going on, but could not make out the words. The only thing he could tell was that not everyone was in agreement with whatever she'd planned to do. He realized that he had not heard her voice yet either for earlier her steward had called out her responses to his demands.
"What are your terms?" she called now.
Sebastien laughed aloud before answering. "Terms? I will not kill these two if you open the gates now. Delay and I will not even promise that." He dismounted and his squire ran forward to take control of the horse from him. "I am tired and not in good humor, lady. If you make me fight my way in, I also promise that you will bear the consequences."
The air was filled with expectation as everyone waited. Sebastien had no doubt that she would order the gates open. Her brother and sister had told him that much on the ride here. They'd revealed that she always stood between them and danger, but this time in trying to send them away from danger, she'd inadvertently placed them in the path of it.
He had been honest though; he was tired and wanted to bring this to an end. He wanted nothing so much as a hot bath to rid himself of the odors and filth of battle and blood and the sooner he got inside, the sooner he might get exactly that. Of course, depending on her actions, he may have one more messy task to accomplish for his king before he bathed.
She disappeared from the battlements and he heard her calling out orders as she ran. He put his helmet back on and mounted again for it was better to face enemies well-armed and from the back of a horse than on ground. With a wave of his hand, his men regrouped around him and the children were moved to the back, out of danger from misfired arrows or misguided men.
Would she feel humiliated when she discovered the truth of his treatment of her siblings? How would she react when he offered her the choice that Robert had demanded only hours ago? Wed or dead? Now, after seeing her valiant efforts to defend her home, he was certain it would not be an easy thing to carry out her execution. He would, of course, if she did not consent to the marriage, but now it would be more difficult than following other orders from the Bruce.
The scraping of wood and metal filled the air as the portcullis was raised and the gates pulled open. Then, with a loud squealing, the drawbridge was lowered to the ground. Two guards marched forward with one woman between them. Sebastien was tempted to laugh again, but spared his adversary the humiliation. As if these two men could protect her against anything he wanted to do? The small group stopped just after crossing the bridge and walking onto the rocky ground surrounding the castle.
"Secure the castle," he called out without ever lifting his gaze from her face. A troop of his men rode forward, the hooves of their horses clattering on the wood of the drawbridge.
She looked as though she wanted to say something, but hesitated. Now that he could see her features, he realized she was younger than he first thought. She wore a plain gown and had her hair pulled back and woven into a long thick braid. But the hautiness and arrogance of the MacDougall was etched on her face.
Sebastien dismounted once more and approached her. Her expression displayed a hint of fear at his approach, and then she seemed to control it.
"How many years have you?" He scrutinized her face and form as he asked. 'Twas difficult to tell from just looking. He reached up and removed the helmet he wore and pushed his hair and the mail over it back off his head.
"Enough to know that only one of the Bruce's minions would use children as his shield..."
Her words drifted off as he dropped his helm and reached out to take hold of her face. Pulling her by her chin, he dragged her close enough so that only she could hear his words. Staring directly into her cold blue gaze, he clarified her new position so there would be no mistake.
"Speak carefully, lady. To insult me is to insult the Bruce. And he now rules Dunstaffnage and you."
Her face blanched and she reached up to pull his hand free. Although her touch sent shivers down his spine, the look of hatred in her eyes shocked him. Was it meant for him or for Robert? He released her and sent her stumbling back a few paces.
"I would see my brother and sister." It was a demand, with no acceptance in her tone that he was the victor here.
"I think not." They had business to conclude before he would surrender his leverage to her.
quot;You think to keep them prisoner? Will you throw them in the cell that opens to the ocean's winds? Will you keep them wrapped in the chains...?"
He grabbed her once more. She challenged him with every word she spoke and, in spite of a certain exhilaration he felt because of it, he could not allow that to happen successfully. This time he used both hands to take her by the shoulders.
"Until we finish our business, you will go nowhere but where I take you and do nothing that I do not tell you to do."
He drew her closer until only inches separated their faces. Suddenly he was fighting an urge to kiss her instead of threaten her. Tamping down that desire, he gritted his teeth and forced out the words of his orders from the Bruce.
"The Bruce has taken your father prisoner and I hold your siblings and this castle for him. You have the choice of what happens to them."
"I have the choice?" Her words came out as a stuttering whisper. He could see the fear in her eyes now.
"You will be wed or dead by nightfall-it is up to you."
All the color left her face now and she looked as though she might faint. After a few moments, she spoke.
"Wed or dead? Who will carry out this sentence?"
"You will wed me or be dead by my hand, lady. Choose now."
Lara MacDougall could not speak. As most of those living at Dunstaffnage knew that did not happen often. She stared up at the face of her enemy and just could not believe the words he had just said. Wed him or die? Today?
She shook her head, simply not able to comprehend the reasons behind his supposed orders from the Bruce. Pah! The Bruce? How dare he think he had the right to rule Scotland and especially this area! Her father had held power here for so long she could not remember it ever being any different. And who was this Sebastien of Cleish to think that he was deserving of the hand of the Maid of Lorne? Blinking, she shook her head again.
"Is that your answer? You would choose to die?"
He released her and she watched in horror as he stepped back and pulled a long sword from its sheath. His brows gathered in a mighty frown, but his intent was clear-her death. Before she could protest or say anything, the sounds of screaming emanated from inside the castle. Lara reacted as she always did when her family or people were threatened-she turned to run back inside to determine the reason. Could the Bruce's men be killing those inside? Her young maid and some cousins remained inside when she'd left. Were they being attacked?
His arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her back against his body. She tore at his hands and called out her maid's name, trying to get free, but his strength was impressive. He hardly even moved when she struggled. When she stopped for a moment to try again, he took her braid in his fist and pulled her head back towards his. His breath was hot against her neck and his words were just as heated.
"You will get back inside either as my wife or in a wooden box and no other way. Until you decide, you stay here."
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