Rodrick the Bold – Suzan Tisdale

As a boy, Rodrick the Bold had loved Christmas Tide. His mum would decorate their little home with evergreens and holly. She would make special breads and sweet cakes, the scents alone enough to make a little boy’s mouth water with anticipation. On a special night, they would walk to the MacElroy keep and watch the Yule log — carved by their chief and his brothers — being lit. The chief’s wife would give each of the children a small gift. The Christmas Tide of his eighth year, he was given a carving of a horse. He still had that little toy, tucked away in a small box he now kept hidden under a floorboard in the armory at the Mackintosh and McLaren keep. He was all of nine when he lost his parents and sister to the ague. ’Twas an illness that swept through the MacElroy clan, leaving very few survivors. ’Twas the single most devastating event of his life, and one he never truly recovered from. Rodrick spent the next few years being raised by a band of survivors — all men. They taught him how to fight, how to defend the keep, and how to be a man. These hardened men put little stock in what they called flowery words or deeds. Not a one of them had a wife, though they might have fathered a child or two. Every Christmas Tide since losing his family, Rodrick made one wish on the northern star.

’Twas a simple wish: he wanted a family. Rodrick would have liked to call the cold, hardened men who raised him family. But again, they weren’t the kind of men who cared for such things. Their sole focus was to defend the keep and what was left of its people. Now a full-grown man nearing forty, Rodrick still made that simple wish each Christmas Tide. He still longed for a family, but now, he yearned for a wife and bairns to call his own. Even after all these years, ’twas the only thing he wanted in life — although he’d rather be gutted than admit such a thing to anyone. He was, after all, a hardened warrior. Still, on this cold Christmas Tide night in 1357, he made that wish again. Under an inky night sky, dotted with stars, he found the star and made the wish.

“I want naught more than a wife and bairns of me own. A family and home to call me own.” He was quite certain that wish would never come true, but one never knew what fate might just have in store. Even for a hardened warrior such as Rodrick the Bold. R C H A P T E R O N E odrick the Bold was on a mission. Either Heaven-sent or straight from hell, ’twas too early to say and too difficult to tell. Most likely ’twas coming from hell, for that was where he was certain his one-time friend was now burning for eternity. Charles McFarland had betrayed him, as well as every member of the Mackintosh and McLaren clan. An eternity spent with Satan seemed a fitting punishment for the atrocities he had committed. A betrayer of trust and honor, Charles had come close to killing Rodrick months ago.

Today, fighting torrential rain and thick mud up to his horse’s knees, Rodrick was not so certain he was glad he had survived. He blamed the dreams, as much as he blamed Charles, for his current predicament. Nay, he hadn’t made a promise to the man whilst he had lived. He had made the promise to the God-awful, haunting dreams that had kept him awake for weeks now. Dreams that made him wake up in a cold sweat, feeling exhausted and haunted. Horrifying, tormented images of his long dead friend calling out to him from the great beyond. They were always the same: Charles floating over the sea with his arms outstretched, his torso covered in blood as his guts dangled outside his body. He spoke, but not in words that Rodrick could understand. ’Twas as if Charles was trying to speak to him in a whisper over a wide chasm. Then the lass would appear.

A comely lass with hair the color of fire and eyes a shade of green he’d never seen before. A blend of emeralds and dew-covered spring grass, filled with tears of sorrow so deep he could feel it to his bones. Her words, he could hear like a gentle whisper in his ear: Help me. So real and vivid were the dreams that he thought he might be losing his mind. He was sure as hell losing sleep. And to the very depths of his soul he knew the image was of a woman he’d never laid eyes on: Muriel McFarland, Charles’s younger sister. She was the reason Charles had betrayed everyone. She was the reason why Charles had tried to kill him, the reason for all his lies and for the turmoil begun amongst the clan. Once Rodrick had learned the truth behind those treasonous acts, he understood why Charles had done what he had. However, what he did and what he should have done were two entirely different things.

What Charles should have done was come to Rodrick and ask for his help. Instead, he chose what Rodrick considered the cowardly and foolish alternative. Charles sided with the enemy instead of coming to his friends. Muriel had been taken as hostage a year ago as part of the devious scheme by the Bowie laird, Rutger, to take over the McLaren clan. As far as Rodrick knew, she was still being held on the Isle of Skye against her will, by a woman named Kathryn McCabeMacDonald. Held for ransom as well as leverage against Charles. And that was all he knew about the lass. Other than what he saw in his dreams: that lovely face, those green eyes and that eerily haunting voice. For weeks he tried to ignore the dreams in the hopes they would eventually stop. But they were relentless.

Now he was consumed with the deep sense that someone needed him. Aye, he could be completely wrong in that assessment. But the feeling would not go away no matter how hard he tried to push it aside. So before dawn that morn he made a decision to leave the clan and go in search of Muriel McFarland. WİTH EVERY FİBER of her being, Muriel hated Fergus MacDonald. For months now, he’d been her tormentor, abusing her beyond the limits that any woman should be forced to endure. One moment he was telling her what a worthless whore she was, only to turn around and rape her again the next. And she hated his wife Anthara, just as vehemently. When Muriel had gone to her after the first time Fergus raped her, Anthara beat her nearly senseless. She accused her of lying, of trying to make her husband look like a monster in the hope Anthara would set Muriel free.

It took days for the girl to recover. Were she a stronger woman, she’d kill them both. Many a night she’d lain awake dreaming of how she could take their lives. If only… If only she were stronger. Smarter. Braver. Then she might be able to find a way out of this house and off this bloody island. Oh, how she longed to be free again, to be back home with her brother. If he knew what was happening to her, he would be consumed with a murderous rage. But Muriel had not heard from him in months.

Of course, that did not mean he hadn’t sent word. Mayhap he was unaware that Kathryn McCabe-MacDonald had sold her to Fergus? Mayhap he had no idea at all where she was currently being held prisoner. Knowing Fergus and Anthara the way she did, chances were strong that they were keeping any communications secret. So, she was forced to work day in and day out, forced into submission to Fergus, all in order to repay debts that were not even of her own making. Debts her father had incurred, which had unfortunately transferred to her and her brother upon Donald McFarland’s death. Her father had borrowed money from Kathryn McCabe-MacDonald’s husband. If what she’d been told was true, he owed them one-hundred groats. Certainly Charles was working hard to obtain her freedom. Knowing him as she did, he would not rest until she was released. Fergus often liked to torture her by reminding her that it would take years before she could repay the large amount that was owed.

He also liked to remind her that no man would ever want her now that she had warmed his bed. It sickened her when he spoke that way, as if she had wanted him to hurt her, as if she had asked him to rape her repeatedly. And this day was no different. He’d caught her alone in the kitchen as she worked to prepare the evening meal. He had insulted her before forcing her over the table and lifting her skirts. Tears streamed down her cheeks. The degradation was never-ending. She felt dirty and just as worthless as Fergus told her she was. It scared her when she realized how much hate filled her heart. It scared her even more when she realized he was right.

No man was ever going to want her after learning the truth. Ignoring the filthy words spewing from his mouth, she closed her eyes and tried to pretend she was anywhere but here. That she was back home and at an age where she was still young and innocent. When her parents were yet alive and healthy, vibrant people. Or mayhap when she was a bit older and able to help bake the bread for her parent’s shop in Edinburgh. Bent over as she was, with her eyes closed and Fergus behind her, she didn’t hear Anthara enter the room. Didn’t hear her sharp intake of breath or her silk-slippered feet crossing over the stones. But she felt the sudden rush of cold air as Fergus withdrew at the same moment a hard hand slapped her cheek. It stung and shook her out of her desperate reverie. “You whore!” Anthara was seething, angry.

Her chest rose and fell in rapid succession, her face red with fury. Her eyes were as wild as the summer storm raging outside. “’Tis all her fault!” Fergus cried. “She seduced me!” Quickly, Muriel adjusted her skirts and scurried away from the table. The rage in Anthara’s eyes was unmistakable. There were many times over the past months when Muriel had feared for her life. But this afternoon? She believed she would soon be taking her last breath. A moment later, Anthara was rushing toward her with hands outstretched, fully intent on strangling the life right out of her. Muriel backed away until she felt her bottom hit the wall next to the fireplace. “I told ye to stay away from me husband!” Anthara hissed.

“I warned ye!” Finding her voice, Muriel stammered out, “I never wanted him to touch me! He has been raping me for months! I tried telling ye—” Her words were cut off by another smack across her cheek. “Ye lie!” “I tried to resist her, Anthara! But she kept beggin’ me,” Fergus said as he looked over his wife’s shoulder. “I think she be a witch who has cast a spell upon me.” He was smiling, his dark eyes sparkling with the knowledge that his wife would never believe a word that came out of Muriel’s mouth. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Cowering in the corner, she covered her head with her arms to protect herself from Anthara’s fists. A moment later, Fergus joined in. MURİEL LAY CURLED in a ball in the corner, enveloped in fear, her heart pounding so hard she could feel the blood rushing through her ears. Just how long she had lain there she didn’t know. All she knew was that she hurt.

Not just her body, from where Anthara and Fergus had punched and kicked her, but all the way to her soul. They had finally broken her. She wanted to die. Not so much due to the pain radiating up and down her spine, or from the blood trickling down her lips, or from the painful swollen cheeks. Nay, she wanted to die because there was no reason to live. Fergus would never stop his assaults and Anthara would never intervene on her behalf. Muriel had no friends, no allies here. No one to protect her. And to her very bones, she knew that Charles was never coming for her. He’d been unable to procure the funds for her release.

Mayhap he believed she was better off where she was. Heavy footfalls against the stone floor drew nearer. My God, they be comin’ back to beat me again. “Just cut me throat and be done with it,” she whispered, doubtful anyone would listen. They were drawing too much pleasure out of beating her. Someone tossed a rag that landed on her face. “Clean yerself up.” She did not recognize the man’s voice – gravelly and deep. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, turned her head slightly, and looked up at him. From where she lay, he looked like a scraggly giant.

His face was covered in dark whiskers, his greasy hair was pulled away from his face, and from his pungent smell, she could surmise it had been a good number of years since he’d bathed. “I said to clean yerself up!” he growled. “We have a boat to catch.” RODRİCK HAD BEEN on Skye for two days and was not any closer to finding Muriel McFarland than he had been the day he arrived. He was sorely tempted to head to the public stables where he’d left his horse, catch the next ferry, and return to his clan. Earlier that morn he had finally tracked down Kathryn McCabe-MacDonald at her home. The woman had pretended she had no earthly idea who Muriel McFarland was or what he was talking about. Irritated, he’d left the house to find a tavern where he could get good and bloody drunk. As he was trudging down the path heading back into Portree, he began to feel as though he were being followed. Someone was in the woods that lined the path.

He could hear the faint rustle of leaves and soft footfalls. Whoever it was, they were not very good at being unobtrusive. Ever so slowly he placed a palm on the hilt of his sword. He didn’t want the person in the woods to know he was aware of their presence. Up ahead, the path forked and the woods ended. He wished then he’d brought his mount so he could make a swift exit if needed. God only knew who might be waiting for him at the branch in the road. Surrounded by forest on both sides, he knew he was at a disadvantage. While he was never one to run from a fight, he was also not a stupid man. He was alone, at least a mile from Portree, without his steed or anyone to help him.

But he wasn’t called Rodrick the Bold for no reason. He had just made the decision to attack first when the person in the woods drew closer to the road. “M’laird!” a female voice whispered. He spun with sword drawn, ready to do battle. He heard a slight squeak of fright in response. “I mean ye no harm!” the woman called out to him. “Show yerself,” he ground out, itching for a fight. Cautiously, the woman stepped forward through the thick brush. She was a stout woman of mayhap forty years, with light brown hair and fear-filled eyes. She glanced quickly back toward the house before looking at him again.

“I mean ye no harm, m’laird,” she told him. “But I ken where Muriel McFarland be.” Dubious, he raised a brow as he narrowed one eye. She sent another look back toward whence she’d come. “They sold her to Fergus and Anthara MacDonald, me laird’s brother and his wife, they did. That poor girl!” She shivered and shook her head. “I heard ye talkin’ to me mistress. She lied to ye, she did. Muriel was here for a few months, but then they sold her to Fergus.” She looked so sad — as well as afraid — that he had to believe what she was telling him.

He took a long hard look at his surroundings. His instincts told him the woman was alone, that this was not a ruse to draw him into battle. “I must get back afore she notices I be gone. Go to Portree, m’laird. Help that poor girl. Fergus is no’ to be trusted. I fear what he’s already done to her.” She started to turn back into the woods. “Wait!” he called out to her. “Where in Portree do I go?” “They live no’ far from the docks, in a big house.

Just ask anyone there and they can tell ye, they can.” She said nothing else before disappearing back into the woods. MURİEL DİD her best to keep up with her captor. She’d lost one slipper within moments of being all but dragged out of the house. The man — who had refused to tell her his name — declined to stop long enough for her to grab it. His sweaty hand clung to hers with such force she worried he’d crush her bones. Down the crowded streets of Portree he pulled her. The rain had let up earlier and was now naught more than a heavy mist. Just enough so it clung to her brown dress, her face and hair. Anthara had refused to allow her to take anything with her, not even her own cloak.

’Twas one more slap in the face, another way for Anthara to prove she had the upper hand. They headed south toward the docks through mud and muck. The cold mud seeped through her bare toes as well as her slipper. Soon, she could see the tall masts of several ships. As they drew nearer, with him shoving their way through the crowds, her heart cracked with each step she took. Once, she tried pleading for someone to help her, to tell them she was being taken against her will. But the tall, smelly man yanked harder, giving her no time to beg for mercy. Soon she smelled the salty sea air blended with the scent of fish and bodies that seemed as fond of bathing as the man pulling her along. Seagulls, osprey, and gannets flew overhead, diving down into the sea. The braver birds were trying to steal the day’s catch from fishermen’s boats.

Instinct warned her she was heading to her death. Right before they’d left Anthara and Fergus’s home, Fergus had taken great delight in letting her know she had been sold to the ship’s captain for the paltry sum of five groats. “And I was lucky to get that much, considering the shape ye be in,” he had told her. Oh, how she wanted to use her fingernails to scratch out his eyes! But there had been no time, no opportunity to do so. As her heart cracked, her stomach roiled at the thought of what lay ahead. She’d not try to raise any false hope that the captain would be kind or generous. Any man who would buy a woman was not a man who could be trusted. And if her experience with Fergus was any indication of what lay in store for her on that ship… She made a decision then. The first opportunity that presented itself, she would fling herself overboard and let the sea have her. Death was the only preferable alternative to the life she was certain she’d find on that ship.

“Hurry it up!” the smelly man called out over his shoulder. “The cap’n is lookin’ forward to meetin’ ye.”

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