Abduction of a Highland Rose (Preview)
September, 1648, Kellie Castle, Pittenweem, Scotland
A brisk autumn morning highlighted by a pale blue sky encompassed the Erskine clan as an ominous silence from the pasture frightened the elders. A bone-chilling wind propelled the red and yellow leaves onto Freya’s soft cheek, as the first shimmer of sunrise rose above the valley, with the Highland mountains perched over the shadow of Kellie Castle.
Freya lifted her nose to a scent on the air, like spilled milk, and peered into the fair maidens’ chore station. Cracked eggs lay on the strewn hay, and the moment of solitude unnerved her.
“Freya!” came a voice with a deafening pitch.
The birds which surrounded the pasture burst out of the prickled brush, blinding Freya temporarily. She dashed into the corner with her back perched against the wooden door as her spine bristled. It was only when her best friend, Sorcha, crawled underneath the battered door that Freya let out an almighty sigh of relief.
“Freya, help! The men – they – they tried tae hog-tie me an’ drag me awa’. I’m the only one who escaped,” Sorcha shouted, her garments covered in dirt and grass stains.
Freya was confused. “Whit dae ye mean ye are the only one? How many maidens hae vanished?” She wrapped her arms around Sorcha’s slender frame.
“Fer o’ us were taken.” Sorcha gasped as she collapsed into a pile of mud. “I can still smell their foul stench on every inch o’ my body. Those heathens!”
Tears streamed down Sorcha’s face as she went on to tell Freya everything. The material covering her thighs was tattered, both elbows were scuffed, and dark bruises were already blooming on her back.
“We need tae get tae the castle,” Freya stated, and when Sorcha gave a cursory nod, Freya helped the young woman to her feet.
They crossed the valley as quickly as possible, with Freya carrying much of her friend’s weight. Sorcha was too exhausted to walk freely. After a little while, Freya had no choice but to hoist Sorcha up onto her back and lug her the rest of the way to their clan’s castle.
Blood streamed down Sorcha’s limp hand and onto Freya’s arisaid, which again forced the women to halt. Freya lowered Sorcha to the sod and ripped a piece of cloth from her arisaid at her mid-thigh to dress the wound.
“Hurry, Freya! Afore they come back. Please hurry!”
“Hush. I’m goin’ as fast as I can.”
A cold sweat crept over Freya’s brow, and she flinched when an insect landed on her shoulder.
“Who goes there?” she shouted at the air around her.
“Stay back. If ye come ony closer, I will bash ye brains in with this stone,” she added, goose bumps peppering her arms and legs that were now doused with muck and Sorcha’s blood.
Again, no answer.
No one was in sight, only remnants of the Erskine clan’s animals from when the daily milk and eggs were collected by the youngest of the fair maidens.
“There’s nothin’ there, Sorcha. It’s a’ in oor heids. Noo, come on. The castle is jist above this final plateau.”
Sorcha’s eyes went from side to side, peering in all directions as she dangled atop Freya’s shoulders, which throbbed like jagged rocks pressing into her blades.
Suddenly, Sorcha unleashed a violent shriek, which likely awoke the neighboring clans in the lowlands.
“That’s them! They hae come back fer us. They are goin’ tae rape an’ kill us,” Sorcha screamed.
A soft rain started to drizzle. Freya perched Sorcha onto the stone wall along the beaten path which pointed directly to the castle. Freya gripped her friend’s wrists and pressed her against the serrated stones.
“Listen tae me! There is nae one oot there down the valley oor behind this ‘ere stoned fence. Yer mind is playin’ games with ye. Noo, hush,” she said.
Sorcha bit her lip, then collapsed against Freya’s chest, clinging to her for consolation.
“I cannae carry yer arse anither step. I dae no’ hae the strength o’ an ox,” Freya added with an amused grumble.
Sorcha nodded and sat back up straight. She then appeared to snap out of her melancholia.
“Very well then. I think I can manage the hill from ‘ere. Thank ye, dear Freya.”
The pair trekked along the muddy trail as the hill steepened. They gasped for breath, and their limbs ached as they sank deeper into the sludge on every step. With the summit of the hill now beneath their feet, Kellie Castle lay straight ahead.
“Thank heavens we finally made it home in one piece. An’ the rain has stopped. Let’s get a move on – I need tae take ye tae the caretaker sae she can mend a’ these wounds on yer arms an’ legs,” Freya told Sorcha.
Kellie Castle stood at the bottom of the hill. The normally vivid emerald leaves on the trees surrounding the entrance were now an assortment of red, yellow, and orange. A winding river flowed around the side opposite of the grassy hill. The river curved to the rear of the gray-bricked abode which housed the most prominent of the Erskine clan. The river crisscrossed its signature into the valley and became lost into the rolling mountains of the Highlands.
No one in the Erskine clan had any clue how far the river stretched as it eclipsed their territory. Their border halted before the valley pressed into the base of the nearest foothill. It was a breathtaking sight, as the sun glistened along the river and highlighted the endless shades of grass which rolled along the hills.
The base of the castle was layered into three distinct sections at the front where the clan members had their quarters. A window was cut open from the brick in each room so the night breeze could maintain circulation throughout the structure. In the center section laid a fireplace to spread warmth during the chilly fall and blistering winter nights.
Battlements surrounded the rear of the castle around the courtyard where the warriors practiced their hand-to-hand combat. Stone-crafted staircases in each section of the base of the castle led outside to the center courtyard. The archers rotated shifts to man the battlement station and to stand guard in case of an enemy’s approach from the rear. Two other guards switched out day and night to patrol the base of the castle adjacent to the gated entrance.
One of these guards alerted the clan to a signal of distress, as he witnessed the lumbering ladies approaching.
Freya and Sorcha shivered as the blustery wind picked up once again. The guard rolled down the gates, and each time the gate lowered, it clanked as if struck by a Highlander’s broadsword.
Freya half dragged Sorcha to the caretaker’s quarters and pounded on the door with one fist.
“My friend is wounded. Please, open up,” Freya shouted.
Finally, after a few moments, the door swung ajar, accompanied by a low-pitched grumble.
“Who said ye could come bargin’ round ‘ere like this, missy? I hae the right mind tae slap the daylights oot o’ ye. Noo, whit’s the matter?” the female caretaker asked.
“My friend is hurt, an’ she might hae been raped. She needs ye tae dress her wounds. Jist look at her, will ye?” Freya replied, her tone sharp.
The elderly, gray-haired woman gasped at the bloody mess that was Sorcha.
“My word! Who could dae sich a thing tae a beautiful flower? Come, I will get those gashes stitched up right awa’.” She gestured for them to swiftly follow her inside.
The caretaker directed Sorcha down onto a stone bed covered with sheepskin. She then sprinted down a dark corridor, into the neighboring section of the castle, to fetch the supplies she saved for such emergencies.
A little while later, Freya finally saw her friend at ease. She reached out and grasped Sorcha’s hand which was marred with grazes, evidence of her fight to escape the clutches of the animals who tried to abduct her.
“My dear Sorcha, ye hae tae tell me whit happened tae ye oot there.”
Sorcha’s eyes remained shut as she rested.
At that moment, Freya recollected that her friend was not the only girl who had been attacked that morning. Other maidens had been with her and thus presumably vanished without a trace from the borders of the Erskine clan.
Thoughts raced through Freya’s mind. Who attacked them an’ why? All of the girls happened to be the youngest of the working females in their clan. Freya herself was twenty-four years old, and Sorcha, along with the girls who were apparently taken captive, was a few years younger. Their primary responsibility in the clan was to collect food for the morning meal. Since Freya was slightly more mature, her job required her to remain within the castle.
I must warn the rest o’ the clan aboot this. We might a’ be in terrible danger, Freya thought.
Freya parlayed her message around to the Erskine clan members within the castle, and it started a ruckus amongst the elders. She ran down the stone staircases into the courtyard and proceeded to the villagers who lived beside the castle. Freya herself lived amongst them as she was raised there by her parents. The archers who stood guard in the battlements looked on in confusion as she galloped down the valley with her garments still tattered and covered in mud.
She bombarded into every home which occupied the village, and several of them were not too pleased when she barged in unannounced.
“Protect yerselves. Someone might be comin’ fer us. Mithers an’ faithers, ye need tae protect yer daughters,” she echoed to them all.
Naturally, the villagers were swept into a panic, and their shrieks carried down the valley. The men gathered their weapons stocked inside their homes and displayed much hubris in their ability to ward off any would-be attackers.
Freya scowled at their arrogance for not realizing the seriousness of the matter.
“Dae ye no’ get it? Four girls within oor clan hae disappeared withoot a trace, an’ we hae nae clues tae who is responsible. Nae one is safe ‘ere, sae ye need tae wipe those grins off yer faces afore someone wipes them off fer ye,” she told a few of the men with a scowl.
Now that everyone was aware of the incident, the questions came. How would the Erskine clan identify who was behind the dastardly deed? How would they get the young girls back? Were they even still alive?
A tear slithered down Freya’s pale face at the thought of her best friend being killed, raped, or held captive for who knows what reason. The thought of it all made her want to disinfect her body with blisteringly hot water.
She settled for the river which was at its calmest point when it cut through the middle of the village. Freya ditched her soiled arisaid, and despite the frigid cold air, she jumped into the river to cleanse her grimy body. The bathing was brief, and soon she hopped out, only having been submerged enough time to allow the hardened mud and blood to soften and scrape off her body.
She glanced around and saw the trees’ limbs trembling. The clamor of the villagers had faded; the only sound now was the gentle flow of the water down the valley into the rocky cliff a bird’s eye view away.
Her teeth chattered, as her soaked, light-blonde hair sat halfway down her back. Freya’s hourglass figure was the envy of many girls in the clan, younger and older. She might have still been young, but she had the physical features of a woman beyond her years. She was the prized beauty of the clan, who the chief envisioned only the finest warrior marrying someday.
Freya put on only her undergarment and gathered herself for the hike back up the hill to check on Sorcha at the castle.
When Freya arrived at the caretaker’s quarters again, she grabbed an unused cloak from a hook by the door and slung it over her person. She then walked on to find Sorcha in a meeting with the chief and his best warriors.
“Whit is this? Sorcha, ye need rest,” she said, her tone firm.
“It was imperative that I tell the chief whit occurred tae the best o’ my memory,” Sorcha replied.
“An’ whit was the outcome?”
The chief interrupted the ladies’ conversation.
“Efter hearin’ whit this young lass has said, an’ the latest report o’ my informant from oor neighborin’ clan, I fear the worst is yet tae come. We may be in the midst o’ a total invasion from anither clan,” the chief said.
“Well, which clan is it, an’ dae ye knoo when they might attack again?”
“Nae, but we are workin’ on it.”
“Fer girls were taken! Gone! This is oor lives we are talkin’ aboot. The villagers are scared tae death, an’ everyone is on edge.”
“Rest assured. We will stop this horde afore they ransack oor land again. Ye hae my word, my fair beauty.”
Freya stared at him with skepticism but knew better than to question her chief. She returned her attention to Sorcha, who would stay the night within the castle to be monitored by the caretaker.
“Sleep well, Sorcha. Ye need tae regain yer strength efter whit ye went through. I’m jist sae glad ye’re safe,” Freya said and lightly kissed her friend’s bruised cheek.
“Dae ye want an escort tae the village, Freya? Cannae be tae careful given whit’s happened,” one of the guards asked, as she prepared to head back home to the village.
“Ay, thank ye,” she replied, with a small smile.
The moon was full, and the only lights in the valley were the moon, stars, and the small candle in Freya’s hand. Even with the guard accompanying her, the darkness was still somewhat foreboding given all that had happened.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, she stumbled on a log from a dead tree. She shouted out a curse, her voice echoing down the valley. It was a miracle the candle hadn’t gone out in the fall.
“Ye a’ right, lass?” the guard asked, helping her up.
“Aye. I’ll live,” she joked.
They resumed their shuffling in the darkness, and then her candle snuffed out. The eerie pitch of night animals seemed to get louder in Freya’s ears. She muttered another curse, determined not to be frightened by her mind that was merely playing tricks on her.
Then, a noise came from the grass just ahead, and both she and the guard halted mid-step.
“Who goes there?” the guard called out, his hand on his sword belt, ready to draw if needed.
When the noise did not repeat itself, Freya breathed a sigh of relief and turned her attention back to the path towards her home.
Not two steps later, Freya felt a hand close over her mouth. A scuffle broke out near her. Swords were drawn and clinked. The guard cried out, and something went thump on the ground.
Freya knew he was no longer for this world.
She tried to scream, but the hand pushing against her lips was replaced with a gag. Her grunts and moans were useless. A strong grip pushed her arms and feet together, and in only seconds, all four limbs were tied. Her vision went dark as a blindfold was bound around her head. Two sets of sweaty hands then swept her off her feet and began to carry her away from her village.
Freya despaired, salt burning the backs of her eyes as the tears welled. She knew what was happening, and she was powerless to stop it.
Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Scotland
Freya was strewn sideways atop a horse’s back as it galloped parallel to the river. The stream whispered as the only guide to enlighten Freya of where she might be. The rush of the water echoed at a more frenzied pace as the horse increased its stride.
“She’s the bonniest one we’ve snatched from this side o’ the Highlands,” one of her captors said.
“Aye, she is bonnie a’ right. The chief will surely take this one,” another replied.
“O’ course he will! He keeps the fairest ones we capture an’ leaves us with the rest o’ ‘em.”
The horse ceased its gait, and Freya was hoisted up by one of the men and tossed over their shoulder as if she was a bag of feathers. They carried her down what she assumed was a staircase and into a room.
Her blindfold was ripped off with such swiftness that it stung her temples and snatched pieces of her hair by the roots. The gag was loosened, and she shifted her bottom jaw to spit the wretched fabric from her mouth.
“Ye better keep quiet, oor the gag goes right back in ye trap!” said one of the men before they went back upstairs.
Freya shimmed her still tied-up limbs like an inchworm across the dirt floor and toward a corner. She shivered as a cold draft filled the room, raising the hairs on her body.
Thunder rolled, and flashes of lightning pierced her vision as her eyes struggled to adjust to the candlelit gloom. Drips of raindrops echoed around her, and she searched frantically for the source. She squirmed along every corner of the wretched dungeon and finally felt a drop land on the bridge of her nose. She gazed upward and water trickled from the window carved into the wall with iron bars sealed in between. The roar of the rain intensified as the frequency of drops increased. Her mouth felt as dry as a desert, and so Freya tried to catch every last drop while the thunderstorm endured.
When another great lightning strike brightened the room, a peculiar item on the ground grabbed her attention.
It’s a ring from oor clan! She peered at it closer. This has tae be where they brought a’ o’ oor maidens. But where are they? Why am I the only one in this dungeon?
Muffled voices sounded from above. Freya inched her way on her belly across the floor to the other side of the dungeon which lay next to the stairs. Rocks scattered throughout her prison crunched against her bones with every movement.
She was unable to detect the specifics of any conversation when she placed her ear along the crevice from the floor above her. Suddenly, footsteps stomped toward her. They approached quicker and became louder with each step.
A husky middle-aged man with reddish, dark-brown hair down to his neck stood before her. Despite a slight gut that protruded along the belt of his tartan, he exhumed a muscular frame. He appeared strong but displayed an arrogance which was as foul as the odor which stemmed from his physique.
“Ye are one o’ the fairest lassies I hae ever laid eyes on. Aye, ye shall make a fine Murray maiden. The prettiest in a’ the Highlands,” the man said, sounding prideful about his words.
“Who the hell are ye an’ why hae ye taken me prisoner?” Freya demanded.
“Ye are at Blair Castle, home o’ the once mighty an’ powerful Murray clan. My name is Donald Murray. I am the chief o’ this clan. Pleased tae make yer acquaintance, my little bonnie,” he replied with a wicked grin.
“Did ye take the ither maidens from oor village?”
“Surely, I hae nae idea whit ye are talkin’ aboot.”
“Dae no’ play me fer a fool. We had fer maidens vanish yesterday, an’ one o’ their rings is beside me. I ken they were ‘ere.”
Donald laughed and nonchalantly opened the door to her prison cell. He lowered himself to one knee, so he was at eye level with Freya. He clutched her jaw and stared into her deep blue eyes. His stench engulfed her, and she gagged from breathing in the foul body odor.
“I will break it down fer ye very simply, little bosom. Oor clan was nearly wiped aff the face o’ the Earth by a horrific disease. We were once a proud clan with hundreds o’ abled body warriors an’ oor women as radiant as the full moon. Noo, we are down tae oor last thirty men. Probably less than that. We jist buried three more.”
“An’ the women?” Freya asked as she attempted to escape his grip.
“Women? They are a’ deid! Bless their souls. Oor last lassie passed on months ago from that wretched disease. So, unless the remainin’ men o’ this clan take action, we are doomed tae go extinct. But no’ if I hae ony say in it,” Donald said, releasing her to pelt his sword against the brick wall.
The rabid look in his eyes terrified Freya.
“I’m sorry yer clan was stricken with a horrid disease, but that daes no’ give ye the right tae rape an’ pillage ither clans,” Freya whimpered, backing herself into a corner.
Donald lunged for her and lifted her above his shoulders by her arisaid with one hand, his broadsword still in the other. The arm which lifted Freya pulsated, but held her with support. His mammoth strength coupled with his short temperament provided a lethal combination.
“I will dae whitever I see fit tae repopulate this clan. If that means raidin’ ither clans an’ stealin’ their women, then sae be it. An’ only the bonniest stoaters will mither future Murray lads.”
“Ye bastard! Where are the girls ye took from oor clan?” Freya demanded again.
“Let’s jist say we had nae use fer ‘em. They were jist wretched Sassenachs, like ye,” Donald said, mocking the young prisoner.
“I am no’ an English woman! Ye are sadly mistaken, ye despicable animal,” Freya replied with defiance.
“Ay, no’ technically ye’re no’. But ye are a worthless lowlander clan compared tae the Murrays. Sae, in my book, ye’re jist as rotten as the Sassenachs. Only those from the Highlands are true Scots.”
Freya’s face flamed as red as the leaves on fall trees. She spat into Donald’s face, and the enraged Highlander threw her across the dungeon. She landed with a heavy thud, having had no chance to break her fall given her hands and feet were still tied together.
“Ye shall burn in hell fer this. I swear by it,” she said, blood dripping from her busted open lip.
“Ye willnae hae the chance, lassie, an’ ye are mine. Ye will give birth tae one o’ my offspring. Ye may come from an inferior clan, but I willnae let ye beauty go tae waste withoot providin’ me a wean.”
“Like hell I will. I would rather die than be impregnated by a monster like ye. Jist let me rot.”
“Dae no’ say it like that. I might hae some company fer ye later. We are burnin’ that forsaken Kellie Castle tae the ground once an’ fer all. If I find ony lassies as fair as ye, they will bear a’ o’ oor warriors a son. A future generation o’ strappin’ Murray lads. We will kill the rest o’ ‘em along with a’ the men in yer clan.”
Donald sealed the dungeon door and climbed the staircase with a malicious laugh.
Freya laid with her knees pressed to her chest as she sobbed over the presumed fate of her clan. The chief of the Murray clan was a vicious man. He would show no mercy to the neighboring clans of the lowlands who lived a peaceful life. Freya’s clan was now at risk of complete annihilation, and she was helpless to do anything about it.
She overheard the men of the Murray clan preparing their attack. Donald barked orders as the self-appointed chief to show no mercy on the rival clan. He clamored about their dwindled numbers and their need to secure the future of their clan by capturing the most beautiful women in all the nearby clans to give birth to their children.
“There is nae ither way we can ensure we hae sons an’ grandsons tae carry the Murray name. If we sit ‘ere an’ dae nothin’, oor clan will be extinct. Is that whit ye a’ want?” Donald asked his warriors.
“Nae!” the group shouted in unison.
The Murray clan warriors all wore their green and red checkered tartan with the strap over their shoulder. Armor was also clasped over their shoulders and around their torso for protection. Each warrior was armed with a broadsword, shield, and a dirk for close quarter combat.
The outbreak of smallpox devastated the Murray clan for several years, as they were formerly the most powerful clan in this region of the Highlands. At the time of the outbreak, no clan dared to challenge their rule over the territory. The factions they built through marriages with members of other clans strengthened their rule and reputation.
Everything collapsed when the first sign of the disease was discovered in neighboring villages of Blair Castle. Entire villages were wiped out as men, women, and children were stricken with illness. The tipping point was when the chief and every member of his direct family died, despite never stepping foot out of Blair Castle. Alliances died, their number of warriors decreased, their territory shrank, and eventually, the last woman connected to the Murray clan passed away.
The strongest of the males who remained was Donald, and he was a ruthless warrior in battle. His stated purpose in life was to fight in hand-to-hand combat to defend the honor of his clan. Being the most feared warrior, he took charge after the former chief died. He vowed for the Murray clan to reemerge from the ashes for generations to come.
Despite the majority of the remaining Murray clan members being hypnotized by Donald’s zealous sermons, there was one respected member of the clan who was not convinced of Donald’s leadership.
Andrew Murray was alongside Donald as one of the fiercest warriors of the clan, but he did not yearn for the fight like Donald. His heart ached for the members of the clan who passed away, much like the self-appointed chief, but his conscience haunted him after their raids on neighboring villages.
Every living member of the Murray clan, regardless of age, respected Andrew and enjoyed his company. The few elders who survived the smallpox outbreak loved him and the lads in the clan, many of whom were without a mother or father, admired him. Even Donald, whose personality was night and day compared to Andrew, commended him for his warrior expertise. Donald regarded him as one of the Murray clan’s most legendary fighters in battle, but not greater than himself, of course.
Andrew’s valiant heroics in past battles to defend the Murray clan were legendary tales which spread throughout the regions of the Highlands. Honor, pride, and freedom were the virtues Andrew stood for each time he stepped onto the battlefield.
The raid that the self-appointed chief bestowed upon the remaining warriors of the Murray clan left an uneasy feeling in the pit of Andrew’s stomach. A raid based on the premise of pillaging and kidnapping was the antithesis of everything he stood for. The fear of the clan’s existence being erased was firmly imprinted on his mind, however, thanks to Donald’s tirades.
The conflicting emotions swirled through Andrew’s mind like a vicious typhoon on the open sea.
There is nae honor in this mission, only shame. But how else will oor clan’s name survive? he thought as Donald received thunderous applause from the remainder of the Murray clan’s warriors.
“Remember that ony fair lass ye lay yer eyes on will come back tae Blair Castle. They will provide ye with plentiful offspring, my brave Murray warriors,” Donald shouted.
Andrew surveyed the deafening roars of his fellow clansmen, and his stomach churned.
“An’ when we leave, we will watch the castle o’ the abhorrent lowland clan burn tae the ground!”
Donald concluded his fiery pre-battle sermon amidst the battle cries.
The platoon of Murray clan warriors climbed onto their horses in the dead of night. They traversed through the rolling hills which surrounded Blair Castle and down the valley, which led a path straight to the Erskine clan’s stronghold at Kellie Castle. The moonlight danced on the river which illuminated the horses’ black, silky coats.
The impending bloodshed to welcome the rising sun of the morning weighed heavily still on Andrew’s conscience as he rode under the black sky. His broadsword had been drenched in blood too many times to count, but the ominous feeling of this battle played to the beat of a different drum for him.
Would his clouded mind falter in battle? Would his skills with the sword suffer? Would he pay the ultimate price?
These questions that haunted Andrew would have to be answered sooner rather than later, as two armed guards approached, oblivious to the invaders ready to pounce with the tenacity of starved lions.
A blue twilight highlighted the surrounding region of Kellie Castle, as the Murray clan’s ambush was set to commence.
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