The Truth of Her Heart – Rebecca Ruger

BODIES WERE EVERYWHERE—ON the ground, in the middle of the road, some near the trees at the edge of the village. All on their stomachs. They’d been running for their lives. A woman’s cold corpse was closest, a gaping slice slashed across the top of her back. Hatchet, or ax maybe. She was dead many days now, yet the deep burrow of scratches dug into the mud near her face suggested she’d not died quickly. Her chin was dipped into the mud, her sightless eyes facing the body of a child not more than ten feet away. If she hadn’t died immediately, she would have been witness to the three men and one woman who had been strung up from the peak of the tithe barn. Like fish on a line, they swung from one shared rope, their bodies clumped together, turning around each other as the main line still swayed. Iain McEwen stood with his hands on his hips, mentally counting, stopping when he’d passed twenty-seven bodies. It was all of them, the entire tiny village gone. Slaughtered. And for what? His lip curled. He turned and squinted into the sun and then away; sheep and cows dotted the meadow and the hill outside the line of thatched homes; hens darted here and there, loosed and wandering, one plucking at the fabric of the sleeve of a dead man further down the lane; draft horses and carts, one laden yet with hay and feed, remained where they’d been left. Nothing had been stolen.

The motive then was simply violence, bloodlust, murder. And not an English arrow in sight, embedded into any of the bodies to say that the culprits had come from the south. No, these were crimes committed against innocent Scots by their very own countrymen. Same as the last. Craig was near, crouched on his haunches, using his finger to make a circle in the drying mud. He pivoted on his heels, met his laird’s gaze, and tapped his finger now at the ring he’d drawn. Iain strode to him, peered down at the impression inside the circle. Craig moved his finger over the marking, showing the pattern. A horseshoe. The print was distinct, having seven holes around the shoe.

Horseshoes were not terribly common, but generally the farrier created them with three nail holes on each branch of the horseshoe, but usually not with any directly in the middle of the arch, or the toe, of the shoe. These prints, all similar, showed a pattern of seven nail holes, with three on each side and one directly in the center. This was rare enough that it was easy to suppose the perpetrators of a similar attack at Wick last month were the same bastards that had made war on this sleepy little village. “Alpin,” he said, his hatred for that otherwise unnamed devil evident in the seething of his tone. Craig nodded. “Round ‘em up, lads,” Iain called out then to his men. “We bury the dead.” This would now be the third time they will have done so. The massacre at Wick had not been the first crime committed around Caithness by the band led by a man known only as Alpin. But his crimes, and the brutality of them, were escalating, and Iain was losing his patience and any desire to hold to the promise he’d made to Robert Bruce that he would deliver the infidel to the Scottish courts.

Iain McEwen’s bloodlust for the devil Alpin screamed for highland justice, in their own land, and by their own hand. With great care, he lifted the body of the dead child up in his arms, clenching his teeth so hard he felt the motion in his neck and jaw. THE WIND SLASHED AT her cheeks and eyes as she rose from her haunches at the beach. She squinted out at the sea and sky and considered the direction of the winds; it was never a good sign when they shifted, even if only modestly. Pivoting, she put her back to the churning water and walked toward the dark frowning rocks which flanked the beach. She hefted her haul of shells and stones further up her arm, onto her shoulder. They clacked in response, shifting and moving inside the woven basket. She shouldn’t have traversed so far but had been lured as always by the possibility of just a few more further ahead—stones along the river and shells down here at the shore—which had her now several hours into today’s hunt. ’Twas an easy hike to make, as the river had no turns from its rise near the keep until its fall into the sea. She’d have remained, gathered more of the precious bounty, if only to have stayed away from the keep longer.

But the wind had indeed shifted, and though she’d dressed with particular care for the cold, it seeped still through her many layers that she thought only a brisk return walk would heat her again. She’d cut the fingers off the heavy woolen gloves a long time ago, that her fingers were now red and stinging from the cold. She curled those cold fingers into the front of her cloak, drawing it tighter against her chin, holding the hood in place, and kept her head low even as the wind was now at her back, marching along as the clouds above turned grayer and meaner. She followed the river, keeping to the west side of it even at those points where it was thin and shallow enough to cross. To do so would put her instantly onto Mackay land, as the river was all that separated the centuries-old enemies of the Sutherlands. She was not a Sutherland, but a guest of a minor Sutherland family, as she had been for several months while a betrothal agreement was worked out between her father and the great Earl of Sutherland, William de Moravia, on behalf of his nephew, Kenneth Sutherland. While she was in no hurry to have the terms defined and agreed upon, she knew that the matter would have been handled with more haste if either the earl or her betrothed were not gone so long or so often from home. All her anxiety over her impending wedding and the bridegroom himself, whom she’d yet to meet, might have only been kept at bay these last many weeks by the beach and the sea and the river. She’d found ease and escape here and would be sad to be so far away from the shore when she did marry and traveled with her husband to his holding further inland. She made no stops now on her return trip, would not allow herself to be enticed by any shiny and colorful stone, that the walk now took less than half the time.

When the manor came into view, just as she passed a grove of tall, windbreaking pines, Margaret Bryce turned right and followed a path whose grass she believed she herself had worn toward the home of Adam Gordon, a minor landholder and his Sutherland born wife, Elizabeth de Moravia. They had graciously served as hosts to Maggie and her father, and rather as intermediaries between the earl and Kenneth and John Bryce. To Maggie’s dismay, she knew the time was drawing near that she would soon meet her expected future husband. She’d heard tales of Kenneth Sutherland, none of them good, had tried to not be distracted or made distraught by them. Even now, she thought of the weather and what tomorrow might bring up onto the beach, and not at all of her betrothed, when she could help it. She passed through the gate of a wall that seemed to have little purpose—being neither too high nor too thick to prevent an attack—and paused at the well. Here, she plopped the basket onto the ground and rolled her shoulder for several seconds to relieve the ache, noticing just now that the wind was much calmer here, away from the sea. Reaching for the bucket, she startled when she heard her name called. For the briefest of moments, she closed her eyes. And then, with a deep breath, she turned and faced her father.

The tone he’d used to bark out her name suggested he was, once again, annoyed with her. Possibly, as indicated by his impatient growling, he’d been looking for her or waiting on her for quite some time. “Where the hell’ve you been?” Maggie resisted the urge to shrink into herself. John Bryce’s enormous, hulking presence sometimes had that effect on her. She was tall for a woman, she’d always thought, but her father still towered over her, boasting possibly three times the weight of her. The hair at the top of his head was long gone, but he compensated for this by allowing the rest of it to grow long and wild, the once dark auburn liberally tinted with gray now. The long beard he wore was grayer still, and thick, though it managed to appear straggly as it was habitually unkempt. Her eyes were begotten from her father, she’d been told often enough, wide-spaced and bright green; she hoped hers did not shrivel into her skull as she grew older, as her father’s had, seeming to be overtaken by an increasing brow and forehead that pushed down until it appeared always that he squinted. “Down to the—” “Get on in here, you squirrely girl!” He cut her off. “Your own betrothed has arrived, and with the earl no less.

And you’re nowhere to be found! Go on now, use the back door, and hie up to your chambers and make—do what you can to be presentable.” He grabbed her by the arm, his blunt tipped fingers cutting painfully into her skin, and herded her around to the back of the keep. She was forced to stride very quickly and still, with her father’s long legs moving so swiftly in his anger, she was turned almost sideways by his hand yanking at her. At the kitchen door, which she likely would have used as her entrance anyway, he thrust her inside, releasing her arm that she dashed through the warm and smoky room to the slim back stairs, which she climbed past the second floor and family apartments and onto the third floor to find her own lent chambers. Inside, she wasted no time but stripped off her cloak and gloves and the topmost kirtle, the extra one she’d donned earlier for added warmth. She tossed all these things haphazardly onto the thin straw mattress and checked to be sure the remaining kirtle, her least favorite blue one, was presentable. She struggled only briefly to remove her wimple quickly, shaking it out and perusing it swiftly to be sure it was clean still and then wrapped the cloth once more around her head, covering all her hair. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she understood that she should take more time to make sure she presented herself in the best possible form to the man who was likely to be her husband. But then her father’s ire and impatience suggested she had no time to fuss over herself, and too, there was a large part of her that hoped the man, Kenneth Sutherland, was unimpressed—or better still, completely offended—by her slapdash efforts that he might suppose he had no interest in marrying her. Less than ten minutes after her father had discovered her in the courtyard, she presented herself in the hall of the keep.

The first thing she noticed upon entering was that a man, who was not the very affable Adam Gordon, under whose roof she dwelled, sat in the lord’s chair upon the dais. Maggie assumed this must be the earl then, and instantly assumed that he must be a lord of lords, one who preferred that no one forget who he was. It was probable that his very short stature, among the giants of her father and Adam Gordon and several men-at-arms nearby, forced him to adopt a clearly assertive personality to establish his own importance, as if only a child standing on a stool in the midst of so many adults that he might be noticed. Adam’s wife, Elizabeth, was in attendance and swept up the slight train of her burgundy gown to rush to Maggie’s side at her entrance. Nearly twice Maggie’s age, she was very plain with pale eyes and thin brown hair and a rather unfortunate chin, which protruded as a rounded red-tinted sphere beneath her lips. But she more than made up for her lack of beauty with her generous and pleasing personality. She stopped before Maggie and put her hands on Maggie’s arms, giving her an encouraging smile, or trying to, as it really didn’t show in her gaze, essentially emerging as nothing more than a grimace. “Come to meet your betrothed, dear Maggie.” She traced her hands down Maggie’s arms, squeezing and holding one hand to pull her forward. “But first,” her father called as she neared the men around the dais, all of whom were standing and posing around the man in the chair, “meet the Earl of Sutherland, at whose mercy we’ve arranged your happy future.

” Maggie had never heard such bombastic congeniality from her father. Moving forward, leaving Elizabeth behind, Maggie set her gaze upon the earl, dressed as finely as everyone around him was not. She thought his coat, a long flowing thing that spilled to the floor as he sat, might be made of silk, red and vibrant, the brightest thing in this dim hall. He was older than her father, and not unpleasant looking, but then neatness and cleanliness were often very attractive. He watched her approach with one lifted thin brow of gray, over eyes the color of some of her favorite brown river stones. Maggie bowed deeply, but truly had no idea if this should take her all the way to her knee at the floor, and so it did not. Lifting her face again, she held the man’s gaze levelly, as she’d been governed often over the years that honesty and integrity were found in a steady gaze. She knew also not to speak until first she’d been spoken to. The earl, whose kind gaze had Maggie wondering if she might refresh her first, unflattering opinion that he acted the short man among his taller colleagues, gave justification to her preliminary judgment and forced several more into her head when he said, “Margaret Bryce, I wonder you do not tip right over, those breasts being so heavy upon the front of you.” Maggie blinked at him, incapable of thought or speech.

All the silence and somberness of the room in which she’d entered vanished as every man burst out with laughter, guffawing at the earl’s crass words. Startled by his vulgar speech, and that these should be the first words he spoke to her, Maggie turned her head, saw her father chuckling along with the other men. “Top heavy, she is!” Called out one man. “That’s why you put her underneath ye!” Said another, and more laughter followed. Adam and Elizabeth, standing apart but side by side, looked decidedly uncomfortable, their expressions tight. “I’ll turn her over, like a dog, and not be slapped by those things.” Maggie swung around and favored the man who’d uttered these words with a gasping frown. This, then, must be Kenneth Sutherland, if he were imagining he might be doing anything with her. Saints alive, but how dreadful! Not him, he was not un-handsome—tall and lean with pretty brown eyes to match his uncle’s—but because he was actually standing in this hall, meeting his affianced for the first time, and making motions with his hands and hips to suit his loutish words. Honest to God, she was stunned speechless.

But only momentarily. Before she thought better of it, she clamped her fists onto her hips and said, “That is how you greet me? And before we’ve been introduced? Like a rutting stag?” “Aye, and feisty!” Called out one of the men-at-arms. “You’ll have to knock the obedience into her, I’m thinking,” said the earl, his tone laced with both humor and a warning to Maggie, if she read it correctly. Kenneth Sutherland’s face lost all good humor as he stepped closer to her. Maggie stiffened and forced herself to not step backward. She was accosted by a nasty scent, which sprang from her future husband, and curiously was rather incongruous with his tidy breeches and tunic. “And that’ll be the last time you take any tone with me,” he said in a silky, deceptively calm voice. And then, with a smile that moved only his lips, and barely at that, he said, “I am Kenneth and you are Margaret and now, wench,” he said with great purpose, “we have been introduced.” Frightened now, as his eyes were neither warm nor friendly upon closer scrutiny but promised retribution it seemed, Maggie swallowed and nodded, thinking silence would benefit her greatly at this moment. She kept his gaze though, not inclined to sink or wilt before him, and was frightened by what she saw in this man’s eyes, this man who would be her husband.

The liquid brown of his eyes had hardened, showing a startling coldness that hinted at callousness and something darker. To Maggie’s horror, she understood immediately that this man was not a good person. “Aye, and that’s enough of that,” called out the earl. “You’ll be scaring her off and running.” Maggie turned and met her father’s eye. He, too, stared at her with some rebuke in his gaze, the darkness telling her to be mindful of her tongue. Some bit of sorrow colored her own gaze, that her own father should give her away to a man such as this. And what did he get? He gained the protection of the Sutherland, she must assume, but traded his daughter and possibly several hundred acres of his not inconsequential land holding. John Bryce was a large landholder, but not a great lord, with neither a title nor an army, which essentially made him naught but a vulnerable farmer. “Go on, then,” said the earl, waving a careless hand in Maggie’s direction.

“We’ve contracts to settle, and your bridegroom has rutting, as you say, to consider.” Maggie ignored the answering guffaws, and allowed Elizabeth once again to take her hand, this time pulling her away from the hall. They spoke not at all, but ascended the main stairs, onto the second floor’s narrow corridor and the next set of steps that led to the third floor. Elizabeth delivered Maggie to her chambers and only then spun her around to advise, her voice laced with sympathy, “It won’t be that bad. It won’t be awful. Maybe for the first few years, and then you’ll have children and he’ll leave you alone.” Her brows lifted, she forced as smile. “And then you’ll have your own keep to manage and children to raise and it will be fine.” Maggie stared at her, her mouth falling open. It won’t be awful.

Dear Lord! So much to look forward to! Elizabeth was lucky, in that her husband was kind and not at all coarse or violent. She smiled at her friend, expressing some appreciation for her attempt to cheer her, as if that were possible now. “Thank you, Elizabeth. For everything.” “Very well, and now I’ll get to the kitchens and make sure we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of the earl with some less than fabulous supper.” Maggie nodded, her tight smile still in place, and closed the door behind her. With one hand on the door latch and the other flat against the cool wood of the door, Maggie leaned her forehead against the door and sighed. Closing her eyes, she resisted the urge to weep. It might only be awful for the first few years, Elizabeth had suggested hopefully. Forlornly, she turned and leaned her back against the door, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, and wished her mother were alive still.

She’d not have allowed this. She’d have immediately put a stop to the very idea. And she’d have given Kenneth Sutherland a mouthful—without cowing in the face of his dreadful threat—and would have had that boorish man begging forgiveness for his uncouth behavior. Twenty minutes later, in which time Maggie had done little more than flop onto the bed and lament her sorry fate, her father barged into the chambers. She jumped from the bed, hoping to God he might say that the Sutherlands were severely displeased with her and had begged off. She thought she could bear her father’s immediate displeasure over that more than she could stand to be married to that man belowstairs. No, that was not the case, she sadly learned right quickly. “Maggie, I’m tempted to beat some sense into you,” he growled out, no preamble given. “You’re goddamn lucky the man still wants to wed with you, and that the earl will let him.” “Lucky?” She scoffed.

“Father, I would not consider myself fortunate to be married to that man.” “Aye, you’re just like your mam, curse her wretched soul.” Maggie gasped. “But you’ll no have love and all its frills, lass,” he said harshly. “The world ain’t made like that, and you weren’t born as such who could make it so.” In an exceptional move, Maggie grasped at her father, clinging to his forearm. “Please father, I’ll marry anyone, any other Sutherland if that’s the name you need me to wed, but not that man. I beg you —” “Think you’ll get a better deal?” He jerked his arm, his lips thinned. “Hah!” She derided, removing her hand from him. “The deal is yours and not meant for me.

I’m naught but the chattel, sold for rutting and—” “And what did you want? You’re a woman, rutting and birthing are what you’re made for, that’s what’s expected of you!” That’s all that’s expected of you, she thought he meant. “I won’t do it,” she said, with a rare burst of defiance. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stalked away from her father and toward the window. “I won’t have anything to do with—” Her words were yanked away, as was her person, spun about by her father’s meaty paw, turned around just as his other hand swung out and cracked her smartly across her face. Only his hand on her arm kept her on her feet, though she stumbled with the force of the blow, throwing out her hand as the ground came close. But she was jerked straight, her face brought close to his. “You’ll do it, goddamn you!” He hissed at her. “You’ll do it with a bloody smile on your face! And I’ll hear no more about it!” It wasn’t the first time her father had hit her, but it had been a very long time since she had felt the back of his hand. There was no point in leveling any accusatory glare upon him; he’d proven immune to that justified impertinence when she’d tried exactly that many years ago, when she was so much smaller, so much younger. He towered over her, red-faced and seething while they squared off.

Shaking herself free of his arm, she allowed only anger—and sadly, a bit of hatred—to color the glower she did fix upon him. And then she turned her back on him. I don’t deserve this, she thought with no small amount of self-pity. Staring blindly out the small slit of a window, she heard him leave, closing the door with a sharp thud.

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