Taste of a Highland Lass by Juliana Wight

Chapter One

The tip of the sword lightly poked Gawain's throat, his head held high as his father, the wielder, forced him against the wall. His bright eyes darted upward in the darkness, but his breath was carefully measured despite his fuming. A distasteful look hardened the old laird's face, harsh expression shooting at his kneeling, battered son. Gawain could taste the blood in his mouth and sweat on his lips. He wanted to move, but he was hooked in place by an insurmountable strength.

"What possessed ye, Gawain? Ye force me hand with yer treachery. How could ye’ve brought such shame to our family?"

"I’ve done nothing to cause harm to the clan, father. I only did what I needed to do to gain yer favor once more. I devoted everything to the clan, and I deserve what ye’ve given to him! I’ve worked fer it, dedicated me life fer it and it should be mine. Why have ye decided to brand me a traitor when it is ye who has betrayed me, fa…?" The sword pressed under his chin, a warning from his father. He clenched his teeth as his heart beat harder than ever.

"Watch yer tongue. It was never yer place to rule this clan, Gawain. ‘Tis yer brother's birthright and nae trickery from ye will change that. Ye are not fit to live among us if ye will not respect our laws. Your soul is vile and I cannae trust you around your brother, so begone. Be gone far away,” the old man threw him to the floor as he retreated, “If ye ever set foot on these lands during my lifetime, I’ll surely have ye punished."

Gawain’s face plunged into the hard floor. One more wound meant nothing at this point. "Trickery ye say? How have I tricked ye? I had me life planned in front of me. I never wanted to be involved in this but ye told me, ye asked me to fill in fer me brother and I did just that. I pleased ye, did as ye wanted and ye now cast me aside all because he returned? Ye send me to exile because I tried to win yer favor and ye call yerself me father?" Gawain rose to his feet, towering over the aged laird, his rage burned in his sapphire eyes as his lips curled into a snarl. "Farewell father."

At those words, he felt himself transported through his journey. The rhythmic sound of his heartbeat quickly became chaotic as he relived his journey around high and lows of Europe. He wallowed in his own regrets and misery as he grew, understanding his misdoings by the day. The thoughts of being deserted and hated by the same clan he devoted his heart and soul to plagued him. Like a neglected flower, he was shunned by his own family and friends, who he would have given his life for.

Doubt was deeply rooted in his heart. Why was he raised to take a birthright that was not his? Why was the birthright promised to him snatched away? Why was he tossed aside when the prodigal son came back? His own dreams of a simple life had been sacrificed, his time, his energy, his mind and his soul devoted to one task. The task he was denied from completing.

He found himself drifting in an endless, green field, once again looking up even as bright rays pierced his eyes. The questions in his heart resounded with no answers. He felt he had been uprooted and left to wither in the harshness of the sun. It didn’t matter now, he would do anything for forgiveness. All he wanted was to be back in the familiar soil of his brethren.

He suddenly became aware of something, something important. The sun above set in a breath and a new breeze swept over his face.

He staggered awake.

* * *

Blue eyes shot open as their owner took a sharp inhale. Balancing himself in the hammock, Gawain took a steady deep breath to calm himself from his nightmare. He was still in his cabin; the slapping of the waves came from outside his open window accompanied by the call of seagulls.

They were close to shore.

This was his second chance. The shores of the place he once called home pulled closer to him. He swallowed hard as doubt and insecurity once again overshadowed his thoughts. His father may be dead, but everyone remembers.

His hands trembled as he had read through the letter his brother had sent, inviting him to celebrate the news of yet another child. It made no sense. The Laird already had children and he had not bothered to invite his brother then. Why now? Gawain was skeptical, but he yearned to see them again.

He tucked away the letter. Even if his brother did want him there, what would the rest of the clan say? What would the elders say? No one would fully accept him, but Gawain held no grudges against the clan that banished him. His intentions for the clan were the same as all those years ago, prosperity.

He wondered how things must have changed, improved even. He wondered if his clan was still allies with the Sutherland clan as Gawain was to marry the daughter of the Laird, Flora. He had loved Flora as much as he could. She was chosen for him by his father when Gawain was sure he would be the next laird. He wondered if she would have married someone else.

Of course, she would have. She was beautiful and young, the perfect age to be wed. Would he run into her? He hoped not. Would Caillen invite her too? If they were allies, he might. Would Caillen be interested in how Gawain had spent his years in exile?

For Gawain, they weren't the best years of his life. He had close to nothing when he left the clan and he roamed Scotland before he boarded a ship on its way to England. Strange people they were, always at war with each other and everyone else.

He stayed in a small village where he did any work, he could get his hands on. Times were hard as the English did not like outsiders. Then he fled to Ireland for a few months. He particularly amused himself with the fights at the tavern every night. He soon left for Scotland, having to almost take over the ship alongside the innocent passengers when the captain and his crew turned on them. The scuffle earned him a nasty looking scar that ran over his lips.

He arrived in Scotland which was where the letter found him. He had no idea how his brother knew where he was, he had a mind to ask but felt Caillen would brush him off.

On getting his brother's letter, he boarded yet another ship, not wanting to travel by road. It would have been faster but Gawain was trying to drag out the time he had to get there, he dreaded what reactions he would get from the clan.

Memories of life before his brother packed up and left flooded in. Things were simple, things were normal, and he had no worries. He had wanted to live a simple life. He would build a house away from the clan and settle there. He'd marry himself a pretty wife and have his own children. There had been a girl he had his eyes on before his Flora. He remembered her fondly.

Davinia had come to the castle to work as a servant but it did not take long for her to become a valuable asset. They had grown on each other quickly as she was the only maid who he could trust with anything.

Davinia had always shown him her affection. She made his meat as tender as he liked it, she always got him the best spiced wine, the freshest bread. She lent an ear or a shoulder every time he needed it. She had been perfect until he got exiled and even though they kept in touch with letters.

He recalled her last letter. She hardly talked about herself. It contained the usual greetings, asking about his whereabouts and his wellbeing. Telling him to stay safe or she wouldn't forgive him for it. He never asked about how things were going in the castle and thankfully she never told him. The most she could go on about in the castle was about her sister, Emer who had given birth to a proper set of children. She had talked about how his brother took care of her sister, giving her precious gifts from jewelry to silk ribbons. She had taken a few of her sisters as hers had gotten very old.

For this reason, Gawain had gone out of his way, almost earning another scar as he tried to procure Davinia a silk ribbon. He wondered how he always got into a fight everywhere he went.

As he swung his feet off the hammock, the door of his cabin opened for one of the crew members, a short grumpy man who had a mouth filthier than a drunk Irishman. His bloodshot grime filled eyes twitched. "Ship will be docking soon. Pack yer bags."

"Aye. My thanks fer letting me accompany ye on this journey." Gawain gave the man a small smile but was met with a glare before the man left, muttering what Gawain knew were insults. Gawain hopped off the hammock properly, grabbing the bag he had come with off the floor. In the cabin sat a small table where a jar of water sat, he washed his face with the majority and downed the rest before he made his way up toward the deck. The first person he ran into was the captain.

"Was sure I'd have to come wake you myself." The captain was an English guard who had fled after an attempt to assassinate the duke he worked for had failed. A dirty man, almost as crooked as his yellowed, incomplete teeth, Gawain deduced from their late-night talks while they enjoyed the calming waves, a jar of rum or ale each in their hands. The night before was one of those nights as Gawain had turned to ale instead to distract him of what laid ahead.

"Aye captain, I did nae drink that much." Gawain was polite at all times. Men who sailed were never to be trusted. "I’ve been told we’ll dock soon. Thank ye fer yer kind hospitality."

"And thank you for your kind donation, Sir MacLachlan, wasn't it?"

"Aye." Gawain toyed with a gold coin in his breeches before he handed it to the captain, not missing the wide eyes. No more words were said between them and frankly, Gawain hoped he never encountered the captain again.

The ship docked a few hours at sunrise and he hurried off along with the other passengers. It was times like this he was grateful that he did not own much. Slinging his bag over his shoulders, he was met by the familiar port. The ships for journey docked on one side, while ships for goods, sat on the other. The hustle and bustle of the docks was just as he remembered, nothing changed from when he left. Mindless chatter and shouts filled the air, there was the occasional fight breaking out between people or merchants. Gawain braced himself as he started his last journey to the clan's castle.

He stuck to walking rather than paying for a cart or horse ride. He sighted guards wearing the clan's tunic, each one with their head held high on their stress. They paraded the docks, market and even the forests. The village's population increased, the different and new sights at the market intrigued him, often pausing to see what a few merchants sold.

As he crouched down in front of a young girl who manned a space which sold beaded jewelry, a commotion broke out behind him. Hurrying to his feet to see what was the problem, he was surprised and angry to see a guard was the problem.

The guard had a young man by the front of his shirt. Gawain tapped on a woman's shoulder, asking about the problem and his anger flared at her words. "Nae, do nae worry. They do this all the time. The guard's horse was startled and it kicked away the boy's stall. They will leave him alone soon. It happened to me granddaughter a few days ago too."

"But this should nae be happening." Gawain was about to take a step forward but was held back by the woman who shook her head at him.

"It should nae but it’ll end fast if ye do nae interfere." The old woman warned as she let go of his arm.

"I was nae—"

"I can see it in yer eyes. Ye are angry. If you fight fer him now, they'll leave but they'll come back fer him. Ye might be long gone by then. Believe me, there is nothing ye can do to help but watch."

Gawain saw no reason to, other than the guards having a chance to abuse their power over the people but the woman was right. It wasn't his concern anymore. It was his brother's concern. It never was as his father had said. It took him years to realize it was the truth.

It wasn't his birthright, it wasn't his place, it wasn't his responsibility. He tried to make it his and he suffered for it. He had to be careful, trying too hard didn’t work for him the first time around. In the meantime, he’ll try to enjoy doing nothing.