Taming the Highlander – Fiona Faris

Siusan leaned back in the saddle as she urged her mare down the grassy bank towards the small burn that ran between the trees. The polished leather of the reins ran smoothly between her fingers. The chillness of the fresh morning air laved her cheeks. It was a fine Spring morning, and she had taken herself out to the Hermitage Wood, one of the many copses that grew along the banks of the River Orchy as remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest. Around her, straight Scots pines towered to heights that made her feel dizzy when she looked up to their sparse feathery heads, rocky escarpments tumbled down towards the broad rushing river that had carved them, and carpets of bluebells nodded between the trees. After the excitement of the previous few weeks, she had felt the need to calm her mind and catch her racing thoughts. Even though she was of an age when she could expect to be married, the news of her impending nuptials had taken her by surprise, and her head was reeling with conflicting thoughts and emotions, dreams and images. She was awoken from her thoughts by the clicking and begging of a pair of mating capercaillies, their lek hidden somewhere in the thick undergrowth. Between the tall, thin trunks of the pine, she could hear the metallic jip of crossbills calling. From ahead of her came the gurgle of the burn as it trickled down to join the Orchy. Her nostrils were filled with the sharp astringency of the pine and… something else. She sniffed the air, straining to identify the odor. It was the scent of dry woodsmoke, mixed with the faint aroma of meat roasting. As Oighrig, her female mare, scrambled from the foot of the bank and onto a flat piece of ground that fringed the scar of a small gravel burn, she found a group of six men squatting and lying around a small campfire. A blackened billy-can was suspended on a thin branch over the flames.

Two skinned rabbits were roasting on a makeshift spit, and what she presumed to be a hedgehog wrapped in clay was baking just inside the large stone hearth. She did not like the look of the company. “Well then,” one of the men said, shifting and levering himself to his feet. “Whit hae we here?” He came across and took hold of the mare by the halter. “A pretty maid lost in the forest an’ all alone.” Siusan jerked back on the reins to free Oighrig’s head from his grip, but the man held fast. “Now, now, why the haste, lass?” he asked, as the mare tossed its head and skittered back a few paces. “Come an’ join the company fer a while.” He looked across to the others, who were now also getting to their feet as if inviting their encouragement. “We hae plenty o’ meat, an’ ye can provide the sweet dessert.

Eh, lads!” The men chuckled as they surrounded the mare; some of them began running their hands over Siusan’s hips and legs. All of them were dressed in odd assortments of rags. Their faces were grubby with grime, their hair matted and greasy nests of rats’ tails. “Aye, but she looks a tasty morsel, Archie, does she no’?” one of them remarked, his lecherous grin revealing the brown stumps of his broken teeth. “That she does, Jockie lad. That she does,” their leader, Archie, replied, stroking the mare’s head to calm it. “Lift her down, lads, lift her down. An’ be careful no’ tae bruise the tender fruit.” A small sob escaped from Siusan’s throat as a dozen filthy hands laid hold of her and began to draw her, gently but firmly, down from the saddle. For a moment, terror drained the strength from her limbs, but she was suddenly galvanized by the realization that, if they were to succeed in getting her down onto the ground, then all would be lost.

She kicked out to the left and right of her and hammered down a rain of blows on their heads with her fists. The scrum fell away from her, crying out in surprise at her attack. She placed her foot on Archie’s chest and heaved him away from Oighrig’s head. Taking up the reins, she prepared to dig her heels into the flanks of her mount, but the men were up and on her again, clawing at her clothes and pulling her from the horse’s back. The mare reared and bolted, her eyes round and wide with terror. Siusan tumbled from the saddle and was dragged kicking and screaming across the ground and thrown onto the turf by the fire. She immediately scrambled back to her feet, still screaming with rage and fear, lashing out in all directions with her arms and feet. She kicked out blindly and caught one of her assailants in the groin. He yelped and collapsed to his knees. Then her head snapped back as a fist connected with her jaw, and she spun to the ground, the world rotating slowly in the wrong direction.

Stunned by the blow, she felt rough hands pin her shoulders and others pull at her riding breeks. Others still were groping her breasts. The strength drained from her and, with it, her ability to resist. She closed her eyes against her tears and let out a long, hoarse wail of despair. “I’m first, lads,” she heard Archie say. “An’ I next,” came another frantic voice, followed by grumbles of protest. “Now, now, dinna fall oot o’er it, lads,” Archie said. “There’s plenty tae go ‘round.” Suddenly, another voice cut through the babble of breathy, lust-filled voices. “Get away from her, ye filthy swine!” Siusan opened her eyes and gasped in amazement.

Three horsemen stood on the other side of the burn. One had dismounted, and his two companions leaned leisurely on their saddle horns, looking on in amused anticipation. The man who had dismounted had wild ginger-red hair, a full beard, and sapphire-blue eyes that flashed danger. He wore a kilt and a sleeveless leather jerkin over a white open-necked shirt. Behind him, a powerful white stallion, its eyes just a fierce as its master’s, pawed the turf, snorting, as if urging him on. “An’ who the hell are ye?” Archie challenged, jutting his bristled chin out defiantly. “I’m the man who will cut yer balls off if ye don’t unhand that woman?” the red-haired horseman stated calmly, drawing his sword and tipping his head back as if to hear what Archie’s decision would be. A vicious grin spread like a gash across Archie’s face. “Oh, aye?” he returned, looking from side to side to indicate their strength in numbers. “Ye an’ whose army?” The horseman turned and looked enquiringly from one to the other of his companions.

“Och, Uilleam,” one of them exclaimed. “Ye are on yer own. We will no’ sully oor blades with the blood o’ such lowly men. I mean, look at them…” “Aye, come on,” another added impatiently. “Cut the bastards’ throats an’ let us be on oor way. My backside’s sore from all this riding, an’ if I don’t get something tae eat soon, I’ll be forced tae stew my horse.” Uilleam threw his head back and let out a lusty belly-laugh. Without another word, he stepped across the burn and warmed his muscles by swinging his sword a few turns above his head. Archie’s companions left off holding Siusan and straightened to their feet, drawing their long dirks from their belts and gathering in a phalanx behind their leader. Uilleam continued walking quickly towards him, without breaking his stride.

As he came within striking distance, Archie made a feint with his dirk towards Uilleam’s belly. Uilleam’s sword whistled through the air and knocked the dirk from Archie’s hand, leaving a bloody stripe across the knuckles. Archie looked down at his wounded hand, his eyes round with fright. His companions darted past him with blood-curdling cries of fury. Uilleam’s sword whistled through the air again, slashing the belly of one before rising to prick another’s throat. The remaining two assailants turned and fled, scrambling up the grassy bank and disappearing into the trees. They were quickly followed by their three wounded companions. Uilleam, still not breaking his stride, went to stand over Siusan, who still lay supine on the turf. He sheathed his bloody blade and held out his hand to her. She grasped it, and he hauled her to her feet.

“There ye are, lass,” he said, his voice brusque. “Nae harm done. Collect yer horse, an’ we will see ye home. These woods can be a dangerous place fer a young lass on her own, an’ yon vermin will no’ hae scampered far.” He turned, taking his leave. Siusan, rearranging her disheveled clothing, stared at him, transfixed. “W-who are ye?” she asked, her voice quivering ghostlike in her breast. “Uilleam MacGregor o’ Glen Strae,” he announced without ceremony, continuing to walk away. “Hae we met afore?” He stopped and turned back towards her. “I think no’,” he said, running his eyes over her with a suggestive smile.

“I’m sure I would hae remembered sich a bonnie sight.” His companions, who had been following the whole episode with mild but growing amusement and curiosity, jeered. “Ye an’ yer svelte tongue, Uilleam,” one of them observed. “I’d watch him, hen,” he continued, addressing Siusan. “He’s a cannie chiel when it comes tae the lassies.” Uilleam ignored the taunt. “An’ who might ye be?” he inquired of Siusan. Siusan lowered her eyes, suddenly shy of the virile young man who stood before her. “I am Siusan, daughter o’ Angus Mor, chief o’ Clan Gunn.” “Siusan Gunn,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

“Well, ‘tis a happy chance that I should meet ye on the way.” Siusan cast a glance in the direction in which her assailants had disappeared. “A ‘happy’ chance indeed,” she remarked ironically. “An’ if ye’ll permit me, my men an’ I…” “Yer men, ye cheeky whelp,” one of his companions declared good-naturedly. “I’ll hae ye ken that ‘tis yer father, Iain, that I serve, no’ his by-blow.” Uilleam glowered at him. “As I was saying afore I was so rudely interrupted: if ye’ll permit me, my two pet monkeys an’ I will convoy ye back tae Clyth Castle.” He hesitated and considered her. “Come tae think aboot it, I will convoy ye back whether ye permit me or no’. He laughed.

“It would seem that the clan chief hereabouts cannae even keep his own estates in order, letting outlaws hae the run o’ them.” “Ye seem very sure o’ yerself,” Siusan declared, bridling against the brazenness of the man. “I am,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Now, mount yerself up on yer wee toy mare, an’ we will be on oor way.” Her “wee toy mare” indeed! Siusan saw she was set on a collision course with the handsome ruffian who stood before her.

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