Prompt: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Elizabeth frowned as she dropped a stitch in the gown she was mending. It was impossible to keep her concentration as life in the keep continued around—as if she were not sitting before the fire in the Great Hall.
As if she had not been their laird’s wife for the better part of three months.
People walked past her—warriors of the clan did not so much as take notice of her—they had never once shown her the deference they gave to Jason’s aunt or sister.
“And where does the fault lay for that?” she muttered as she repaired the stitch and continued with her project. During her first weeks here, she had made efforts to gain Tracy and Emily Morgan’s…acknowledgment, if not respect. She had asked Tracy to show her around, to talk about the duties Tracy carried out—but the older woman had rebuffed her, and Emily showed nothing but derision for her. Dillon was kinder, but he spent much of his time in the company of the fishermen who kept the clan fed in the between the larger hunts.
Jason spent much of his time outside the keep during the day, training his warriors and seeing to the clan’s needs. She offered no complaint about his family, though she was sure he was aware of the rift that existed. She rarely stayed in the hall after their evening meal, and Jason had started to join her earlier in their chambers.
Oh, were those not the best of evenings? They would sit before the warm fire, in their cozy little world, and he would tell her all about the world that lay outside their walls. He talked of his family’s loyalty to the king, of his clan’s history. And then they would retire for the night—nearly every night and some mornings…
Her cheeks were heated as she remembered how it felt to be his wife, to share their bodies. Jason was the best of husbands—no one could ask for more.
He had been away now for nearly three days—their monthly sojourn to stock the keep with meat they would in the coming weeks. This trip longer than most because Jason wanted to be sure they were ready for the remainder of the harsh winter. One’s breath nearly froze away from the fires of the hall, and the snow drifts were so deep that the warriors had taken sparring inside, the tables and trenchers pushed against the walls.
And while life in the clan continued much as it ever had, Elizabeth sat alone. Day after day, night after night—mending even the gowns that did not need it. She hesitantly asked if there were a loom—perhaps she might be able to work on some tapestries as she had at home. Tracy had scoffed at her and walked away without answering.
“’Tis one of the worst winters in years,” Dillon said as he sat in the chair next to her, blowing air into his hands then holding them close to the fire. “I ‘spect it is much warmer in the Lowlands.”
“I…I suppose,” Elizabeth said hesitantly. “I did not…I spent little time outdoors.” Locked in her rooms. Away from people. Away from anything that might trigger the curse. “Jason warned me the winters were…I suppose I thought maybe this close to the water—”
“Oh, aye, we have a more mild time of it than families further inland,” Dillon agreed. He hesitated and looked away, toward one of the men passing them. The man—whose name Elizabeth had never learned and likely never would at this rate—snorted before striding away. “You musn’t let them get to you, Cousin. ‘Tis Mother’s doing. She willna let you be mistress in anyway—”
“—and so the clan thinks me a lazy Sassenach,” Elizabeth said with a sigh, letting her mending fall in her lap. “Aye, I know. Cumberland is so close to England, I might as well—” She stared down at the dull-colored cloth. “I do not wish to interfere—I know your mother values her position here, but I had hoped if I were patient—”
“Aye, well, showing patience with my mother is like showing yer weakness,” Dillon said with a half smile. “I was supposed to be the leader of my father’s people, you see. But m’father died when I was just a bairn. The clan elected another leader, and Mother decided to come home when Jason’s mother died in child bed.” He shifted. “Mother has never really…recovered from losing her position.”
And so clung to this one tightly…there was nothing Elizabeth could say that would be kind towards Dillon’s mother, and while the youth recognized his mother’s flaws—he might not be so happy if she chimed in with own complaints.
“I have much to feel blessed for,” Elizabeth said, with a bright smile she hoped looked more real than it felt. “I have a lovely home, and I could not ask for a better husband. When we have our own family, I shall—” She took a deep breath. “I shall look after them and be content.” And she wanted those children so fiercely—but despite their…enthusiastic efforts…God had not yet blessed them.
“Eventually Mother will relent or Cousin Jason will set her on fire,” Dillon said. He reached for the mug of ale he had brought with him. “Shall we offer a toast to his safe and soon return?”
“Aye.” Elizabeth reached for her own ale, untouched since a maid had grudgingly brought it to her. “To Jason. May he return soon.”
She sipped the drink and wrinkled her nose. It had a slight bitterness to it—mayhap it had sat too long, but she could not ask for another mug. It would be wasteful. So she sipped it again, and continued to lightly sip as she and Dillon talked of her brief time in the king’s court and the places he hoped to see one day.
The liquid was perhaps a quarter gone when her stomach lurched. The forgotten mending slid to the floor as Elizabeth stood, trying to settle the roiling inside.
“Elizabeth?” Dillon stood. “What—”
She heard nothing else as a vision flashed in front of her—a hand tipping something into a mug—and then the world went black.
When Jason strode into the hall a day later, he found the room surprisingly quiet—no warriors sparring, no groups clustered around the fires—only his sullen sister sitting with their aunt.
Tracy rose at his entrance. “I was about to send a rider after you, Nephew.”
Her expression was heavy—and Jason realized that his wife was missing. It was the middle of the day and she was not mending or sewing by the fire. “Where is Elizabeth?”
“There was…” Emily stood. “We’re not sure what happened.”
His chest tightened, but he kept his voice even. “Where is my wife?”
“Upstairs in your chambers,” Tracy said with a sigh. “She…collapsed yesterday, shortly before the evening meal. Dillon said they had been conversing normally when—”
“Is she—” He could not speak the word, could not—already—imagine his life without the petite brunette and her shy smiles and passionate embraces. “Does she live?”
“Aye,” Emily said, though he frowned at the sullenness of her tone. He knew that the women in his family had not yet warmed to his wife, but he’d hoped with time—
“What says the healer? Has Barbara been to see her?”
“She thinks…” Tracy pursed her lips. “’Tis nonsense, of course, but Barbara suspects poison.”
“Poison—” Jason shook his head. “Nay, ‘tis not possible. She was home. With our clan. They could not—” He stopped. He would speak to their healer himself.
Without another word, he turned and strode towards the stairs.
Inside their chambers, where he had left his wife four days earlier peacefully slumbering—Elizabeth lay on her back, her pallor as pale as the snow that fell outside their window.
She lay under a pile of furs, her eyes closed—the lids almost purple.
At her side, his cousin Dillon scrambled to his feet. “Jason—” His voice slurred, and he wavered. “I wanted to come find you, to tell you—”
“Laird,” their healer murmured from the fire. She stepped away, a mug in her hand. “Your wife lives, I assure you.”
“Will—” Jason rounded the bed and reached for his wife’s hand as Dillon moved to make room. Her hand was limp—if not for the slight rise of her chest—
“Aye,” Barbara said. “She did not have enough to cause death, though it ‘twas a near thing.”
“We were—” Dillon’s voice was thick. “We were talking and she was sipping her ale. I don’t think she liked it, but she couldn’t ask for another—” He closed his mouth, misery etched in his expression.
Jason shook his head. OF course Elizabeth would not ask for a replacement—he had allowed his clan to mistreat his wife—she was not mistress in her own home and did not feel comfortable enough to challenge the bad taste of her drink.
“I found nightshade at the bottom of the mug.” Barbara lifted her chin. “I do not give a fig for what your aunt says, Laird. Your lady was poisoned.”
“Mother just does not want to suspect someone—” Dillon began.
“When will she wake?” Jason asked, ignoring his cousin. “Will she be all right?”
“Her breathing is already much better,” she said. “I would think within the day. But, my Laird…” She hesitated. “I do not know if your lady knew, but Dillon says likely not—”
“Knew what?” Jason faced the older woman, a bit impatiently. “Barbara—”
“She was carryin’, Laird. And she…she lost the babe.”