Carraigile, The Western Highlands, Mid-September 1360
Her father looked bewildered. “Mairead, don’t ye want to be married? Look at how happy your sisters are. Ye love your nieces and nephews. Don’t ye want to be a mother?”
Cathal MacKenzie had tried for years to make a match his youngest daughter would accept. Now she suspected his patience was at an end, and he would no longer wait for her approval. Her father had arranged strategically sound marriages for his six oldest children, and they all seemed to be very happy. “Da, I do love the children, but with eight living here and three more when Annag and Hogan visit, why does anything need to change? I’m happy with things the way they are.”
Her mother, Brigid, tried reasoning with her. “Mairead, my sweet lass, things can’t stay as they are forever. I know ye don’t want to live the religious life. Ye would miss your family too much, and I couldn’t bear to think of ye locked up in a cloister. Please, dear one, it is time ye were married.”
“Why, Mama? Why can’t I just stay here?”
Mairead desperately wanted to avoid the discussion of marriage, but the look of pity in her mother’s eyes spoke volumes. Mairead fought to hold back her tears. She hadn’t cried in seven years, and she wouldn’t start now. Mairead pleaded silently for her mother to intervene, to tell her she never had to marry or leave home if she chose not to.
Perhaps sensing his wife’s resolve waver, her father answered, “I’m sorry, Mairead, but that is not an option. Ye are well past the age when most lasses marry.” Mairead started to argue, but her father put up his hand to stop her. “Nay, lass. No more. We will arrange a betrothal for ye when we attend the Michaelmas Festival at the end of this month.”
“Nay, Da, please...” Terrified, her voice broke, and she couldn’t say more.
Her father’s countenance softened. “Come with us, sweetling. Ye haven’t been for years, and ye used to love it so. We will find ye a new instrument to conquer and ye can meet the young men we are considering. We’ll take your wishes into account if we can, love.”
“I don’t want to go, Da, and I don’t want to get married yet!” Again, she blinked rapidly to keep the tears from slipping freely down her cheeks.
“What are ye afraid of?” demanded her father.
“I’m not—afraid,” she snapped, her voice catching with a sob.
Now her father’s eyes mirrored the pity she had seen in her mother’s. “The choice to go to the festival or not is yours, Mairead, but we will arrange a betrothal for ye and ye will be married. Soon.”
“Aye, Da,” she whispered and left her parents’ solar. Mairead wanted to retreat unseen to her chamber, but escaping unnoticed was nearly impossible at Carraigile. All of her siblings and their families lived in the MacKenzie stronghold except her sister Annag, who was married to the laird of Clan MacBain and her little brother Flan, who had just begun his training as squire for Laird Matheson. After leaving the solar, in order to reach the stairs leading to her chamber, she had to cross the great hall, and her siblings managed to corner her there.
Both Cathal and Brigid had lost their first spouses, and each had brought children to their marriage. Mairead was their first child together. She had been the baby of the family for years, until Flan was born, and in a way was the person who had firmly united both sets of children. They could all claim her as a sister. She grew up loved and adored by her siblings, but they could also overwhelm her.
“Mairead, go with us,” Rowan said. “We are all going. It’ll be fun.”
“Ye aren’t all going,” countered Mairead. “Cullen and Marjean aren’t going.”
“That’s because of our new baby,” answered Cullen, “but everyone else is.”
Mairead crossed her arms and did her best to look defiant. “Lily and Rose aren’t going.” She looked pointedly at their twin sisters, Lilias and Rhoswen.
“I want to,” said Rhoswen, “but it is awfully hard to travel that far with a baby.” Her youngest was only a year-old and quite a handful.
“I’m only staying to keep Rose company, both of our husbands are going,” said Lilias. Cullen rolled his eyes. Lily had given her an opening and Mairead seized it. “Then I will stay and keep ye both company.”
Peadar’s wife, Rhona, jumped to the rescue, “But then who will keep me company? I’ll be the only woman going if ye stay here.”
“That’s not true. Naveen is going.”
Gannon’s wife, Naveen, shook her head, “I am only going as far as my parents’ holding.”