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The brute was upon me.
His clawing hand lashed only inches from the rough fabric of the men's trews I wore. I skittered out of his reach, thankful that I'd chosen the unfashionable training garb this morning, instead of a servant's dress, which would have been far easier to grab.
But Laird Ogilvie was quick for a large, slightly overweight, middle-age lout. Blustery determination reddened his face.
"Your mother escaped me only through death," the laird said callously. "You'll not be so lucky."
Lunging again, his fingers caught the back of my shirt and yanked, causing the tunic to choke me around the neck. He took the opportunity to push me facedown into the plush furs of his expansive bed. I turned my head and gasped for breath, struggling against his hold.
"Why do you insist on wearing the clothing of men, lass? 'Tis most unbecoming. I'll get rid of them for you, shall I?"
I had timed my visit to the laird's chambers poorly. It was my job to tidy up his rooms each morning and return all the cups and bowls from his evening's revelries to the kitchens. And I had carried out my duties faithfully for almost five years, always careful to avoid his presence. Yet today, he had waited for me, keeping himself hidden until he was sure we were alone, and the door was closed. Now it was too late to escape him.
"In this keep, my word is law and you'll not forget it," he spoke gruffly. His hands continued to push the cloth of my tunic higher up my back as he held my wrists with his other hand. "You forget the change in your status. You are no longer the daughter of a landholder, nor entitled to the privileges that accompany such a position. Your mother was equally forgetful. After your father's death, she, too, had difficulty coming to terms with her demotion. She could have continued to live in your farmhouse. But she refused me. Stubborn, she was. Desirable, aye, but mightily stubborn."
I struggled against the pressure of his body, bearing down on mine.
"I stripped her of her land, aye, in the hopes she would submit to me. Still, she fought me." One of the laird's hands held my own in his viselike grasp while the other smoothed along the bare skin of my hip, following the curve of my waist, roaming higher. "It was only when I used you as my pawn, not long before her death, that she finally gave up her futile resistance. You should be grateful to her, lass. She would agree to anything to keep me from pursuing you. Anything. But now that she is lost to us, there is nothing to stop me. I have been watching you for some time. But you already know that, do you not, Roses?"
Aye, I knew it. My mother had offered me a sad warning as she lay dying. It was one of the reasons I hid myself under loose, men's clothing and avoided the laird at all costs.
"You're a kitchen servant," the laird continued, "but you could be so much more. 'Tis time for you to make yourself useful. A mistress of the laird is afforded special privileges, you realize. Private chambers, lightened duties, fine dresses, time and protection to stroll the gardens freely."
Were these the same words of enticement he'd whispered to my mother?
"I'll not agree."
He was silent and still for a moment, then I heard his soft chuckle. "I didn't ask for your agreement, lass. I own you, and I intend to take what is mine."
I heard a soft whimper and realized it was I who had uttered it. The sound of it gave clarity to my choicethe choice that was nestled uncomfortably against my front pocket, in a rough leather pouch. A knife. I was allowed to use it for kitchen and garden duties but kept it with me for protection, though this was the first time I needed to use it for that reason. Knowing it was there now, digging into my hip, gave me but small comfort as the laird pulled on the waistband of my trews. His grip on my wrists slackened as he focused on his goal, pushing my shirt up to my neck where it bunched against my hair.
The laird froze. There was a note of shock in his voice when he spoke again. "What is this? This mark?"
I didn't answer. I concentrated on making my movements as inconspicuous as I could as I grasped toward the knife with my left hand.
Ogilvie's fingers brushed across the skin near the middle of my back, drawing a circular pattern. He seemed distracted, almost amazed, before his harsh tone returned.
"Who put this ink to you? Answer me!"
"I know not what you speak of," I gasped. But it was a lie.
I had spent most of my life attempting to keep the tiny tattoo between my shoulder blades hidden from sight. I bathed carefully when others were around. I wore my hair long. And I covered myself with bulky clothing. Now, I squirmed wildly, equally terrified by the exposure of this small inked mark and the rest of my body. My mind whirled to a shadowy memory that had instilled a lingering fear into the mind of a lost child.
An ancient, superstitious healer had been summoned by my parents when I'd been ill with measles as a very small child. A wizened face. A crooked finger, pointing and accusing. A shrill warning, never forgotten. "A witch's mark! She 'll be beaten, flayed, burned at the stake! Keep this hidden! At all costskeep this hidden."
Laird Ogilvie continued his study, drawing across the ink with his fingertip. "It looks like a seal of some description. A seal of"
The chambers echoed with a sudden, weighty silence. It was the type of silence Ogilvie and his officers typically employed when a servant interrupted one of their gatherings just as a critical piece of information was about to be revealed.
I didn't know if he was considering my flaying, my burning or something else entirely. Whatever the laird had been contemplating, his renewed enthusiasm for carrying out his task was now making itself felt. He fumbled with the fastenings of his trews.
And it was then that I made my move.
The force of my strike embedded the sharp blade into the side of his abdomen. My many months of discreet sword training with the young clan warriors had left me ill-equipped to aim small. Luckily for the laird, the knife was not a large one. If he'd had a chance to consider it, Laird Ogilvie might have rejoiced at his overin-dulgent mealtime habits: his extra padding would most probably allow him to live.
I withdrew the knife and was able to use the laird's shock to slide out from under him and step away. He touched his stomach and considered the blood pooling in his hand with confusion, not believing that his own servant would dare react to him as I had just done.
I took advantage of his stunned silence and, with haste, fled the room.
Surprised by my own rebellion, and the calmness with which I had carried it out, I felt a lurch of genuine panic boil in my heart. What had I just condemned myself to? Death, severe and vengeful punishment, at the very least, or the life of a clanless vagabond. I decided on the latter.
My fear gave me wings. I flew down the staircase, following the halls to the kitchen. I paused only for a moment before entering. Realizing I was still holding the bloody knife, I returned it to its pouch, quickly making sure that no blood was visible. Rearranging my clothing, I forced myself to appear as calm as I could manage. After all, the kitchen servants were used to my strange outfits and my rushed execution of tasks. In the kitchen, I hastily grabbed a large bag and stuffed several loaves of bread into it. I took a small wooden bowl. On a whim, I also took the needle and stitching thread, and a lidded cup of the healing paste I'd made for Ismay only the day before.
Ismay stood near one of the tables, organizing her herbs. My closest friend, my secret mentor in the ways of healing. She looked at me, alert now to my unusual behavior. I gave her a brief hug. It pained me greatly to realize I might not see her again. She returned the hug with some confusion, her brown eyes questioning.
Matilda, the lead cook, paused in her task of doling out instructions to her underlings. She eyed me with her usual disapproval as I passed by her, glancing at the bag I carried.
"The laird requires assistance," I told her as I exited to the out-of-doors, before she could ask me to explain.
I ran to the stables. It was midmorning, so the men of the keep were occupied with training, hunting or tending the fields. I grabbed a bag I had hidden among the stalls, carefully filled over time with items I could use in case the need arose: a fur-lined coat, several lengths of rope, a flint and a small sword. It was this sword I used when I practiced with Ronan and Ritchie, the redheaded brothers of my own age who had found my interest in soldiers' training amusing. They'd spent many an hour teaching me how to fight and how to ride. Skills I was blessed now to possess.
I had known all along that my destiny lay elsewhere. Most of my clan had long forgotten about my mysterious arrival as a child of three or four, accepting me as another daughter of a clanmember, and then as a servant and pair of hands. My unusual looks were occasionally commented on: hair so fair it was almost white, and light green eyes, not at all like the darker hues of my parents and friends. But there was too much work to be done to ponder excessively over the details of my foreignness. With mouths to feed, walls to build and crops to tend, there was little time left over to dwell on the origins of an outcast child.
I had not forgotten. The questions visited me daily. They resided in my dreams. And they made me less willing to accept my fate as the servant of a tyrannical laird whose intentions for me had been written in every glance in my direction since I came of age. But I'd known this was coming. I'd known it all along. I had waited for this day.
And here it was.
At the last moment, I grabbed a war helmet and stuffed it into the remaining space in my bag.
Several horses were grazing near the stables. I slipped a bridle onto a chestnut pony that I had ridden beforeand draped a saddle blanket into place. I used a tree stump to mount the horse and climbed on. He could sense my frantic state, and it unsettled him. I was profoundly grateful that the stable hands were used to seeing me ride. They glanced up from their chores but didn't dwell on what I was doing.
My immediate concern was to put as much distance between myself and my crime during this calm before the storm. The laird was, perhaps, weakened by loss of blood. He might be unconscious, not yet able to issue orders to have me followed, caught, beaten, killed. But that wouldn't last longI felt certain he would recover if a fever didn't set in. I knew firsthand that Ismay was a highly talented healer. After all, she'd relied on me to gather the herbs she needed to make the healing paste, a good strong brew.
I skirted the horse around the loch, gaining speed, at full gallop by the time I reached the open gates of the keep.
I never looked back.
Riding faster than I'd ever ridden before, I pushed my horse until his coat was lathered with white sweat. I was fortunate that the ground was dry and a slight breeze stirred the air; the horse's prints would not be deep, and the wind might erase them before they could be followed. I rode until the sky bled purple, then black.
Still I rode until the horse stumbled, almost spilling me onto the ground. Only then did I let him carry me forward at a slower pace, until we walked almost silently but for his soft-struck footfalls through the star-laden night. We neared a small brook, which cut through the wooded land like a snake of silver, illuminated by the dappled moon and a splash of bright stars.
I dismounted then, to drink and let the horse rest for a time. He found a small patch of grass, which he snatched up in greedy mouthfuls, reminding me of my own hunger. Glad for my stolen meal, I ate most of the bread I'd taken from Matilda's kitchen. I wondered what the scene there would look like now, busy with the scandal of my crime and my desertion.
I lay on the ground for a moment, using my bag as a pillow, and wound the horse's reins around my hand. I slept for a time, waking with a start when my horse pulled on the rope clasped tightly in my fist.
There was no sound, save the light splash of the stream nearby and the soft rhythmic chewing of the horse. No far-off shouts or thundering hoof beats. No sign that the laird's henchmen were on my trail. But my sense of security was hardly robust. Here I was: alone, homeless, an outcast. With blood on my hands and now only one small loaf of bread in my bag. I had no shelter to seek out, no clan to rely on.
Yet I had considered where I might go if I found myself forced to flee. None of the options were entirely appealing, but I had decided I would travel to the Macduff clan, far to the north. Laird Ogilvie's niece, Una, had been married to one of their upper-ranking clansmen, several years before. I could seek her out; she might remember me and allow me to remain with her clan, to work in their kitchens. But it would take several weeks to reach their lands.