Authors: Eliza Knight
Victory was theirs
At least for a little while…
Ceana MacRae and Macrath Mor fought valiantly to win their temporary titles as Prince and Princess of Sìtheil during the bloody war games. A burgeoning love, countless hopes and dreams for the future of Scotland fill the daytime hours, and passion holds them at twilight.
Just married and given only five years to rule before the next set of savage games begins, Ceana and Macrath have vowed to take down the royal council in charge of the games, but before they can move ahead, they have to first conquer their enemies—and their own personal demons. With the ghosts of their pasts chasing them and their adversaries stopping at nothing to see them destroyed, ruling Sìtheil will prove to be a challenge not only for their reign, but also for their love.
Copyright 2015 © Eliza Knight
HIGHLAND SACRIFICE © 2015 Eliza Knight. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part or the whole of this book may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted or utilized (other than for reading by the intended reader) in ANY form (now known or hereafter invented) without prior written permission by the author. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal, and punishable by law.
HIGHLAND SACRIFICE is a work of fiction. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional and or are used fictitiously and solely the product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, places, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental.
Edited by: Carrie Jackson
Cover Design: Kimberly Killion @ The Killion Group, Inc.
For you, my dear reader.
Table of Contents
Until now, a land lay unclaimed on the windswept north shore of the western isles. But the war games have ended and two new rulers have been named—Ceana MacRae and Macrath Mor.
Once, on these isles, Sìtheil Castle flourished under the rule of Olaf the Black. King Olaf was powerful, his army strong and his determination to keep what was his, fervent. Under his rule the clan was revered as one of the most powerful within all the realm. Unsurpassed in its wild and enchanting beauty, the land was in danger from surrounding clans who wanted desperately to enjoy the fruits of Olaf’s land, and protection of the castle stronghold. But the thick stone walls could not defend against a vicious plague that killed nearly everyone who resided there. Those who survived were at the mercy of their neighbors. Men who’d once watched from afar with envious eyes took up arms against the weakened holding—killing King Olaf. The ruling Scottish council could not help the few survivors, and soon neighboring clans—and even those as far as the northern isles—began laying siege to Sìtheil.
Olaf’s widow fought fiercely to keep her son Gillemorre’s inheritance but was eventually defeated.
With constant bloodshed, the land fell into disarray. Crops dried up and disappeared. Animals died. Children starved. Some survivors fled into the woods, only to be devoured by the beasts within the dark and vast recesses. Many succumbed to the swords brought down upon them by their enemies, but one survivor escaped—Gillemorre. Facing danger and death, he stole a small boat in the night and braved the rough waters to the mainland, where he made the journey to Scone. He pleaded with the king on behalf of his holding. The king tasked his council with making a decision on the fate of Sìtheil.
The council members decreed that only the fiercest of rulers would be able to keep the people of Sìtheil safe. Better yet—two fierce warriors. Only those who hungered for victory would be able to restore order.
And so there would be war games.
Every five years a series of games would commence between the warring clans—and each clan would sacrifice two warriors—a male and female. There could be only two winners.
One male. One female.
The victors would be married and named Chief and Lady Morrison, and rule the land. To live in the grand castle, rule the vast holding and protect the people by divine right.
But then something changed. The king decreed that anyone brave enough to fight to the death, to take on the role of Chief Morrison should also be named a prince of the realm for the duration of his rule. Five years a prince and then set free.
Ceana MacRae traveled from her lands after her brother, the laird of her clan, was murdered by their enemies. In order to save her people, she knew that she must win the battle of the games. ’Twas the only way.
Arriving at the war games, she suffered much at the ruthless hands of others. They called her the Bitch of MacRae. They tormented her. The reigning councilwoman, Lady Beatrice MacAlpin—formerly a mistress of Sìtheil—took Ceana under her wing. But it was not without consequence.
Many entrants took exception to Beatrice’s favoritism and unleashed their anger on Ceana. Still, she survived when alone and thrived with the help of Macrath—bastard son of the Earl of Argyll.
Sent to the games by his stepmother in the hopes that he would die, Macrath felt an instant connection to Ceana, a desire to protect her.
In Game One, they not only battled their brother and sister warriors, but wolves. Fear and the need to survive fueled them. Ceana had to face down her fear of the vicious creatures that had killed her father. Thank the gods Macrath was there to help her; else she would have succumbed to her fear. She had to learn to fight past it. With emotions running on high, she needed to feel the warmth of Macrath’s arms, to lose herself in his kiss. To seek out the pleasure that had been drained from life. He wanted the same thing, but he also wanted them to have something special to live for. They must not give in yet to their desires.
In Game Two, the men are starved and forced to watch as the women slowly fight each other to the death, dwindling their numbers by nearly half. Ceana survived the game, but she’d had to kill a woman at hand-to-hand combat and she was not certain she could forgive herself for it, even if it was a life and death choice. Ceana had chosen life. And luckily had the skill enough to make it through. Alone together, again, despite the quickly peaking jealousy of Aaron, the warrior from Ceana’s clan, Macrath shows her what pleasure and abandon there could be.
By the time Game Three began, the entrants were tired, hungry and filled with terror. Game three was specifically for the men, as Game Two was for the women. They must fight a mock battle in the forest while protecting the women. But when the women’s cottage is set on fire, they too must work together to free themselves. They did not want the fire to be a distraction to the men who were fighting against the hordes of warriors the council continuously shoved at them, else they not win their game. The women were divided—whom could they trust? Alliances were formed, and in order to stay alive, one must side with whoever strengthened their own capabilities.
The first three war games were hard, but Game Four tested the limits of even the strongest warriors. The Drowning, as it was called, saw many men and women die, including the male warrior, Aaron, from Ceana’s clan and her friend Judith. A great burial ceremony was held, celebrating the lives of so many and reminding the entrants that their time on earth was quickly coming to an end.
At last, the Final Game—survival of the fittest. Tied up and dumped into the middle of the forest beside a pile of weapons, each and every entrant knew they must fight to win, for in the final game there could only be one male and one female survivor. Ceana and Macrath worked together to return to the castle, fighting when they had to, and keeping to the shadows when it wasn’t necessary. Ceana had thanked the gods that most of the men and women killed each other, rather than her and Macrath having another soul on their consciences.
Five games. Over a hundred deaths. They two remained.
Now they must push past the invisible barriers of their own demons. They must prove they are worthy. And most of all, they must remain true to one another.
Let their reign begin.
Late Fall, Western Isles of Scotland
Three days after the war games…
’TIS said there is always a calm before the storm. But in the case of the land of Sìtheil and the battle that had raged for nigh on a fortnight, ’twould appear to be the opposite. A calm had settled on the land after the metaphorical tempest.
Or was it a sign? A warning of things to come? Were they once again at the calm before the storm and at any instant all holy hell would break loose of its confines and rain its fiery wrath down upon them?
Macrath Mor, Prince of Sìtheil, stood atop the battlements of his newly awarded castle and stared at the pinkening horizon. They were the victors. This land was his. This castle his. Yet, he’d not slept the night before, nor the night before that.
While he’d waged war against a hundred strangers for his life and the position he now held, sleep had eluded him. He’d been almost certain that the day he claimed victory, he would sleep like the dead. But he’d not yet felt the rest he needed. As a result, his mind was cloudy, his eyes burned and his body no longer bordering on exhaustion, but was completely drained. Still, he could not sleep.
The answer was simple.
The land he’d won, the people who were now in his care, had been sorely abused, and from the outside it looked as though it would remain that way. For how could he restore to them what had been lost?
Macrath pressed his hands to the stone crenellations, the chill of the rock seeping into his palms. There were still six weeks until winter was officially upon them, but already Mother Nature was warning of her cold temper. Frost covered the grass in the morning, and even here on the stones he felt the frozen dew melt beneath the temperature of his touch.
Lying in the darkened forest, he and Ceana—now his wife—had made a vow to vanquish the royal council, to thwart their rule and reclaim the land for the people. He couldn’t have been more grateful that he’d wed Ceana, for any of the other female entrants could have been the woman he shared a throne with—not to mention a bed. A weakling, or an overbearing fishwife. But he’d been in luck.
The gods had shined down on him when he’d first met Ceana. He still remembered seeing her by the water barrels. Droplets falling over her creamy skin. He’d been mesmerized almost immediately by her. And then she’d opened her fiery mouth and he’d been lost to her forever.
Macrath swiped a hand over his face, feeling the stubble of his beard. He was married. For most of his life, he’d only needed to take care of himself and now he had a duty to his wife and an entire land. He wasn’t simply the chief of a clan but a prince of the realm.
This day would mark the very beginning of his rule, for they would preside over the court of Sìtheil for the first time as prince and princess. Already he could see a line of bodies outside the gates, awaiting entrance. Men, women, children. Some with bleating animals. Most looking rather exhausted and malnourished.
They carried with them various taxation payments, and within their heads a number of problems they would expect Macrath to be able to give them solutions to.
Today he’d prove to his people that he was worthy of his win. That over a hundred warriors had not died in vain. That they could trust him to be their ruler and to take care of them, to broaden the land’s wealth and prosperity. To strengthen them as a people in Scotland.
Macrath shoved away from the crenellations and strode over the stone walkway, his gaze still taking in the loch beyond the moors. He’d never be able to look at the landscape of Sìtheil without picturing death and destruction. He yanked open the small wooden door that led into a narrow, dark stairwell, half expecting the ghost of one of his victims to leap out at him and drag him down to Hades where he most assuredly belonged.
If his stepmother had anything to do with it, he’d have been there already. She’d have murdered him while he still wriggled in his mother’s womb. Letitia was a cruel woman, and even though she’d gone back to her holding in Campbell lands, she haunted him. Her jealousy went beyond a wife thrust aside by her husband in favor of his mistress. It was deeper, darker, and Macrath did not understand it.
He rounded the stairs until reaching the floor that housed the chamber he shared with Ceana. The hall was dimly lit by a torch in a sconce in the center of the wall.
A rosy-cheeked servant ducked out of his room and dipped her head, afraid to make eye contact with him. She was thin, her clothes threadbare, and her boots had a hole where one of her toes poked through. He frowned at the sight of her, only because she should have been better taken care of by the previous laird, or the council. At that moment she looked up to see the scowl on his face and shuddered. He didn’t blame her. He was certain she’d seen many horrible things since she’d been indentured to the castle. Beaten, most likely, and obviously starved. She probably expected much the same from him. And how was she to know that she had nothing to fear from him?
Macrath had not yet gotten the exact number of serfs that worked the land and the castle—indebted for life and owned by the rulers of Sìtheil.
He did not believe in serfdom. Every man, woman and child deserved their freedom and a chance to earn a few coins to pay their way. As a ruler, he was their protector, their provider, and though he was their overlord, he could not be the master of their bodies and minds. Yet another issue he’d deal with as a prince of this land. And another reason why he had to make certain their reign was not only five years in duration.
“You’ve naught to fear from me,” he told her.
Her eyes widened in shock and she nodded, but he doubted she believed him. Had probably heard it before.
Entering the master chamber, he saw Ceana had risen and dressed already, but she’d not yet descended into the great hall. In the three days since they’d been crowned, she rarely left their chamber unless she had to, and though they’d yet to discuss the reason behind it, he had a very good idea why. This castle was theirs in name but the council had yet to leave it, and they seemed to be everywhere.
“Are you ready?” she asked, her voice pensive.
She looked beautiful. Her rust-colored hair swirled into a knot atop her head. Her gown was a simple green that made her emerald eyes flash. A Morrison plaid sash was tossed over her shoulder, but the golden crown upon her head denoted her position.
“Aye,” he said, unwilling to tell her he was in fact not quite ready. His own crown still gleamed from the top of the wardrobe where he’d left it. It was time to don the weighty mantle of royals. Throughout the games they’d been each other’s backbones, and he wasn’t going to let her down now.
Ceana was strong. One of the strongest women he’d ever met—and he didn’t mean in body. Her mind was unbreakable. The woman seemed able to take on the world even amidst the most brutal mind-numbing tragedies. She made him stronger.
Macrath reached for her, pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers. She barely reached is shoulder; a tiny body full of fire. She was warm and melted against him in a way that made him want to cancel court and make love to her the rest of the day.
In the three days since they’d claimed their victory they’d not made love. Exhaustion had taken over, leaving them useless to anything save eating and sleeping.
He wrapped his arms around her, careful not to muss her coifed hair. Ceana held tight to him, lifting up on her tiptoes. She jerked, righting her slipping crown before hugging close to him again.
“After court,” he murmured, “I do believe we should—”
“Break our fast?” The way she said it against his mouth as she tugged at his lower lip with her teeth sounded sensual.
“Not exactly.” Macrath smoothed his hands over her buttocks, cupping the round softness.
“Sacrifice to the gods?” She tilted her hips against his.
The heat at the juncture of her thighs cradled his arousal. ’Twas enough to make him groan. She was warm, soft and he wanted to sink inside her.
“You tease me, wife,” he said.
Ceana slid her hands over his chest, reaching lower until she scraped the length of his hardened cock. “Of course I do.”
Macrath growled and smacked her lightly on her behind. He nibbled at her lips and said, “I’ll be sure to return the favor after court has finished.”
“I’ll be counting on it. Three days is far too long to not have you inside me.”
Fiery heat coursed its way through his veins and straight into his already rigid groin. How the hell had he been so lucky to lay claim to this lass? The woman was a brazen tormenter. He loved that she felt comfortable enough with him to be so bold. To tell him what she wanted, what she liked. Most men were not fortunate enough to marry a woman they liked and who liked them in return—let alone loved.
But then he frowned.
There was no luck involved at all. They’d fought for their place. Both had sustained injuries, taken lives. They were not lucky. They were survivors, and he would do best not to forget that fact—nor forget that Ceana had not chosen him because she wanted a husband, but because she needed a partner in a battle to the death. Love had come from that. His prize for winning was that they could marry.
“Let us not tarry, else we keep court waiting and the council has one more slash against our ability to rule,” Ceana said, her brow furrowing.
“The council can kiss my arse.” Macrath tapped her nose. “If I want to stay up here the rest of the day, what will they do about it?”
She shrugged. “I’m certain they will find a way to punish us for it. They are the masters of agony. We know not all the edicts of our rule, only of the games. And from what we learned during the games, the rules can always change.”
He massaged her hips and the small of her back. “Aye, you’ve the right of it. And we do want our people to know we are there for them. Just before I entered the chamber, I thought the maid would melt into the floor in a puddle of tears upon seeing me.”
Ceana frowned further. “She was very skittish around me as well.”
Macrath shook his head and straightened his clothes, willing his hardened shaft to cease its posturing, at least for now. “There is much we have to change here.”
She slid her hands over his chest. “And it all starts now.”
“Aye.” Macrath held out his elbow. “Shall we, then?”
Ceana smiled up at him—but it was a mixed smile, one that had him concerned. She looked apprehensive.
Locking his eyes on hers, he said, “We will be all right.”
She gripped the front of his shirt and then realizing what she’d done smoothed out the wrinkles. “We’ve made it this far.”
“There is no going back, only forward.”
Ceana let out a deep breath. “Let the gods light our path.”
As if the heavens heard her, a golden light glowed from the window, slicing across the wooden floor planks of their chamber and ending at the threshold.
“I believe the gods have spoken.” Macrath winked.
Ceana trembled and tightened her grip on his arm. “We’d best not disappoint them.”
“We are already in their good graces for the council is evil and we are not.”
“The time for us to prove our strength has come.”
Macrath nodded, watching the transformation take place on Ceana’s face. She went from hesitant to determined. The change made him smile.
He reached for the door, the both of them prepared to face their new clansmen and the council. Their recovery period was over—so said the council. The council that still remained within the walls of the castle and would for the next several weeks during what they deemed to be the transition period.
Ceana must have been thinking the same thing, because as they stepped into the hallway, she said, “’Haps if we do well at this proceeding, the council will not stay as long as they have earlier projected.”
Macrath winked at her in the dim light of the long corridor. “A sound plan, my cunning wife. Let us go and begin the process of putting them in their place.”
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.