A week ago, Morven had been attacked by unknown assailants. They set the town on fire and caused a great deal of damage. Remarkably, no one was killed but many were injured. Many more lost their homes or property. My dear Calum was among those that suffered loss, as two of his horses had been stolen and his farmhouse burned completely to the ground. There were several others, the crofters, the spinners, and the carpenters all lost their means of income. Although we had not lost any lives, our town was hurt.
“Chin up, my darling girl. This wasn’t our first and it won’t be our last. Morven will recover just as it has before.” Lord Aiden MacInnes, my father, put his big heavy arm around my shoulder as I watched a pair of sea eagles circle over the wastes of battle.
The sea eagle is a scavenging bird, I knew they were looking for bodies to pick at. “The eagles worry me, father. I feel as if they are some omen.” I confessed and hugged him. My father held my hand and replied, “Worry not, my precious child, the eagles live alongside us. They scavenge our world, and clean up what’s left out. They have no interest in hurting us. And legends tell that when an eagle cries over you it’s foretelling something big coming to your life. No, my sweet daughter, these birds are nothing to fear, they are our wise, old friends.” He squeezed my shoulder, and patted my back as if to dismiss any remaining bad feelings. “Now go and take that box inside the castle as I told you.”
The many members of the Greum clan that came to attend last week’s party had stayed to help with our rebuilding. Mick Greum was still miffed that no wedding with his son, Dougal, would happen, but we two were all sorts of delighted. Over the week we had even somewhat become friends.
“Let me help you, Mistress MacInnes.” Calum called out to me. “That box of blankets must weigh more than you.” Calum tried to take the box from me with a smile, only to be interrupted by Dougal.
“Aye, she’s strong as any man here, Calum. No sense in taking it from her.” Dougal chuckled at his own teasing as I squared my shoulders confidently and Calum blushed.
“You’re right. Mistress MacInnes can hold her own, can’t she?” He was looking directly into my eyes as he said it, and his lips curled into a playful smile. Tingles ran down my spine and I suddenly felt hot.
“Certainly I can! And Calum please, I’ve told you- just call me Elise. We’ve grown close enough after all.” He smiled again and nodded. I suppose it does take getting used to. I nodded back and hefted the box upon my hip. It was meant for the spinners who had lost the house they shared. For now, they were invited to stay in the scullion’s quarters in the lower part of the castle. My father, with his tender heart, had arranged it and asked me to gather the extra sleeping things for them.
As I labored toward the castle’s lower gates with the heavy box, I heard a cheer and a holler behind me. As I turned to see, even more cheering followed. I saw four men on horseback ride into the village center. I realized folks were cheering because they recognized our returning scouts. No doubt, they had returned because they learned the identity of our attackers.
Abruptly, one of the upper gates of the castle swung open. My father burst through the upper gate from the main chamber and hustled down the steps. I dropped the box of blankets and ran back toward the town center. The future of our home and our clan rested on the information these scouts would deliver. Of course, I couldn’t miss a word of it.
The four men dismounted and bowed before my father. They were out of breath, and heaving. They all looked as if they hadn’t bathed since they were sent out a week ago. They were a joint group, two from Clan MacInnes and two from Clan Greum who had volunteered to help in our unexpected time of need. The largest of them had several wounds that looked to be two or three days old on his shoulder. He must have been the leader as he was the first to speak.
“Lord MacInnes, we tracked the path of our attackers into the north. We did not sleep the first night and we were able to close the gap between us and them. On the second night our attackers stopped to tend to their dead, who appeared to have died from injuries received here. We waited until morning and when they left we inspected the bodies. They looked as if they had been prepared for the eagles and we saw that they were completely covered in tattoos.” He lowered his head again as he finished speaking.
“The Picts? This far south?” Lord MacInnes looks puzzled. “What on earth brought them down here?” He seemed to be speaking more to himself than to the scouts. While he stood thinking, Lord Greum approached our small group.
“What’s this I hear? The scouts are back? What’s the news?”
“The Picts were behind the attack.” Dougal answered his father.
“What? Are you sure?” Lord Greum gathered himself. “Well then we must answer their aggression. Aiden, take a few of my men and let’s oust these savage assailants. Those painted men have no business bringing their fights down here. Let’s teach them a swift and stern lesson.”
Lord Aiden MacInnes grew somber at these words. “Yes, Mick, I think you’re right.” He nodded slowly as he spoke. “This cannot go unanswered. I will lead a troop to go and settle this. I thank you for your offer, a few of your men would do me well. We’ll depart tomorrow morning.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My father is no longer fit for long travel and continuous battle. Yes, he can fight off an invader, but pursuit and continued battle are different. I don’t even remember the last time my father had to sleep in a battle tent. It must have been before I was born.
My heart was beating like a war drum. I was overcome with fear, anger, and worry. I clenched my fists and my jaw. I tried to hold myself, but before I knew it the words were leaping out of my mouth. “No, you can’t go! The people need you here! Let us young fighters go in your place! I won’t let you go!”
“Young fighters?” My father chuckled. “And who might they be?”
“Let us go, Father.” I begged. “Me, Calum, Dougal, other young people who are sturdy and able. Yourself and Lord Greum belong among your clans to act as leaders.”
“Are you really suggesting that I send my only child into a battle?” My father raised and eyebrow but he wasn’t saying no.
“Not just your only child.” Lord Greum piped up. “She’s suggesting my own boy go along in my place. As if I’d allow such a foolish thing.
It was then that my uncles, Calhoun and Dillion, walked up to the conversation happening still in the town center. My uncles, who had been visiting in order to assess my previously betrothed, both controlled the isles off the coasts of Kintyre. They had come to this land with my father and they were no strangers to battle.
“What’s this about sending folks into battle?” Uncle Calhoun interjected. “Did your scouts bring back some names?” Uncle Dillion added.
“Aye, they did. One of the Pict tribes is behind it.” My father answered.
Uncle Dillion furrowed his brow and stroked his beard. “A bit strange for them to be this far south, though? Did they mention their reasons?” The lead scout raised his head and spoke like a soldier. “No, sir. We didn’t speak with them directly, sir. We identified one of their dead while tracking them, sir.” Just as quickly as he had raised it, he lowered his head again. Uncle Calhoun squared his shoulders, “Seems we’ll have to go confront them. Get some answers.”
“That’s what’s being debated, Calhoun. My wee princess here thinks she ought to go in my place. Thinks her Boban is getting too long in the tooth for a fight.” Father winked at me as he said this, and I felt a twinge of guilt. I hadn’t meant that he was too old, I only meant that he need not risk his life when he’s needed elsewhere.
“She’s not wrong, Aiden.” Uncle Dillion said abruptly. “Those wild Picts would put a soft old geezer like you to bed.”
“I’m not that old!” Father shouted.
“Aye, but you’re not that young!” Uncle Calhoun agreed. “I think it’s a splendid idea.”
“She’s as strong as you raised her to be, Aiden.” Uncle Dillon added. “Why not let her put that sword to use?”
Seeing my chance to advocate for myself I leapt in. “yes, Father. You saw I could hold my own in defending our castle last week. You know I can use a sword, you trained me yourself. I’m no ordinary lady. Let me go for our clan.”
Lord Greum had been quiet for a while, clearly considering everything. He finally spoke after hearing my words. “Lord MacInnes, you certainly have an interesting family. The passion in your daughter’s words inspires me. I don’t doubt that she can do it. As allies I’ll offer ten men from Clan Greum to go along with her. However, I can’t give you my Dougal. He’s my only son, and I can’t lose him just yet.” At his father’s words Dougal ducked behind his father. He seemed embarrassed but relieved.
“I’ll go.” Calum stepped forward. The sweat from working to rebuild the town glistened on him, making him shine in the setting sunlight. My heart jumped into my throat at the thought of him accompanying me. Nothing would make me happier than him by my side.
My father and uncles looked him up and down. “You like her that much, do you, farm boy?” Uncle Dillion chuckled. He, along with everyone else, had seen our passionate kiss after fighting off our attackers last week. The bond between us was not a secret, nor had it been technically approved.
Calum nodded. “I would not see her harmed, sir. Nor would I stand in her way. She is a powerful woman, and I would be honored to accompany her.” My knees fell weak to hear Calum talk about me this way.
“But can you fight?” Uncle Calhoun asked.
“Yes, sir.” Calum answered. “I was trained by my father before he passed. He taught me to defend our farm, the horses, and myself.”
“Very well,” Uncle Calhoun said with conviction. “You’ll have ten of my men as well.”
“Aye, and ten of mine.” Added Uncle Dillion.
My father looked at me hesitantly. I could see the love and the worry in his eyes. I could see the redness in his cheeks as he held back his emotion. What a mixture of pride and fear he must have felt. How hard it must be to send your only child into the world, not knowing when or if she may come back. I saw it all on his face then, and a single tear rolled over the creases of his face as he spoke.
“Then take ten of our own along with you, darling. You’ll rest tonight while the supplies and horses are prepared. At dawn you’ll kiss your mother, hug your old father, and head off.” His voice was strong and stern, as if he was talking to his men. Despite his somberness, and the weight of the journey ahead, I couldn’t help but be filled with joy and excitement.