Fighting for a Highland Lass (Preview)
Off the south coast of Orkney
Sunlight skipped across the white-tipped waves. Gulls wheeled, and a bracing wind whipped the salt spray up from where the narrow prow of the Caithness Seal cut through the water like a well-honed blade. Anne Gow leaned out across the churning water, the wind mussing her short black hair the way an affectionate father might do. Not that she had a father, of course. Nor even much affection to speak of. She pushed that thought aside and scanned the view.
Orkney. It was a sweeping, rocky, green prospect; black rocks stretching up from the deep grey water then giving way abruptly to a rolling green land under a vast, ever-changing sky. On a dry day like this, it was beautiful, and the sound of Hoy was good for sailing. On a stormy day, it would have been deadly.
“Sail!” came the shout from high above in the rigging. Anne glanced up at the boy who hung there above the billowing sail. She looked where he was pointing. Sure enough, at the entrance to the bay in which they were approaching, a little single-sailed fishing vessel was turning away from the open water and making its way back into the bay. As she looked over the deck of the ship, she saw that all the crew had seen it too. The village would be warned.
Feelings warred within her; while one part of her seethed with irritation that their planning had come to nought, another part of her felt relief that the little village would not be entirely unprepared for her uncle’s wrath. Then, with a roar, he came, storming through the centre of the crowd of his men. Her paternal uncle, her father’s brother, Neil Gow-Sinclair, with his bristly, patchy black beard sticking out in his fury and his face – horribly twisted by the thick mass of scarring down one side – red with his anger. The stump of his wooden leg thumped on the deck as he moved among his men, yelling orders which his first mate leapt to confirm. Sails up, put on speed, damn the landsmen, they would pay. The usual song.
Then his single, blood-shot eye found Anne.
“You,” he hollered, and there was no question about who he meant, “get back up tae the stern and watch out behind for pursuit. And ready yerself tae fight unless ye desire a whipping! I’ll have no idle hands upon my deck!”
Anne bobbed her head and hurried to obey. There was nothing, she knew, to be gained from disobeying her uncle, and she also knew that even in her case, his threats of physical violence were not idle ones.
The quarter-deck comprised a raised platform at the back of the ship, broad and well-appointed with gun loops, water casks, and a bolted-down table and chairs for the captain and the first mate to sit at in fine weather. There she found a seaman at the wheel of the ship. He gave her a curt nod of acknowledgment but kept his eyes on his task, holding the great wheel steady as the wind billowed into the sails, driving them forward. Anne clambered, monkey-like, up the thin ladder and onto the stern-deck, the highest point on the ship save the rigging. It was a narrow platform with two small quarter-pounder cannons facing back and was heavily reinforced to handle the recoil of the guns. It was also a prime spot to look out over the water behind them and scan for any pursuit. Anne followed her uncle’s orders, gazing out over the water as she took the sword-belt from her small sea-chest and strapped it on.
She was wearing clothes of heavy, dark leather, tight britches, jerkin, and high boots. Standing, she took gloves of leather from her gear chest and pulled them on, and then slipped her leather helmet down over her wild short hair, fixing the strap under her small, strong chin. There was a hide-bound wooden shield leaning against the side of the chest, and she hefted this onto her back then drew her long, light blade, making sure that none of her gear hindered the draw.
Anne Gow hated this, but at the same time, she was fiercely proud of her ability to do it and do it well. She was a fighter, and a damned good one at that, her prowess tempered in the fire of the crowd of hard fighting men who had been her family growing up. Having never known her mother, and with little memory of her father who had disappeared, her uncle was all that was left. What possessed Neil Gow-Sinclair to take her in and care for her she could not guess; it was not the impulse of a tender heart, of that she was sure. A less tender-hearted man would be hard to imagine, but for all that, there was sometimes a look of hard pride in the old sinner’s eyes when he saw her fight. And, of course, he had not always been as cruel and as heartless as today.
There was still no sign of pursuit, but she stuck to her post. Adrenaline thrummed through her, making her heart race, and behind her on the deck of the Caithness Seal men darted back and forth, making preparations for the fight to come, setting the deck in readiness. The rigging was crawling with figures, and as she watched, the three high masts bloomed into sail, strange flowers all opening at once. The captain, her uncle Neil, roared forth an order, and the sails billowed and caught the wind, driving the great ship forward with more speed than anybody would have thought possible.
And then, sudden as a diving gull, they rounded the headland and saw it snuggled small and homely-looking in the green, protecting arms of the small anchorage. A little village. Their prey. Her uncle roared out an animal cry of wicked satisfaction. Anne gritted her teeth and tried to prepare her mind for what must come.
“It’s a ship, Katheryn,” cried Thorvald to his sister. Katheryn pushed her long dark hair back from her face and shielded her eyes against the glare as she peered out over the bay. The day was clear, and warm for February, but a haze lay across the sea which made the boats on the water dance and vanish and return like mirages in a desert. Below them, the little village they called home snuggled between the twin arms of the bay. Peat smoke hazed the air above it and drifted back to their noses, a homely scent.
They had hurried back over from the clam beds where they had been that morning to harvest. Their father – they both called him ‘father’, though Thorvald was an orphan – had come around the bay to the clam beds in his little fishing boat and shouted to them to hurry home straight away. Now they stood, rough home-spun clothing flapping in the endless sea-breeze, barefoot, their youthful faces weathered by their long days living on the land by the water. For all that, they were a handsome pair, she, at twenty-one, a little older, and he, approaching the end of his twentieth year, a little taller. Both of them were too old to be running barefoot like children in the Orkney clam beds.
Katheryn nodded slowly and looked down into the village.
“Aye, it’s a ship, but she’s a big one, and I can’t make out the flag. Whatever can such a vessel want at Skylness? They’re coming in hard.”
“There, look there,” she grabbed his arm, and he looked where she pointed.
The woman they called ‘Mother’ stood up a little way behind the village. She had been scanning the land, looking for them. There was something of fear in her stance, leaning forward, peering through the haze up toward them. Now she began to wave, gesturing them to come down. Glancing back over her shoulder chilled Thorvald to the bone. On the water beyond, the big ship was lowering two smaller boats from the side. It was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked as if the boats were packed with men.
They ran the rest of the way to their mother.
“Oh, God,” she called as they ran towards her, “we do not know who it is, but ye must come down to yer father and the village folk. Yer father is sure that they have come tae plunder, as that has not happened for many a long year.”
Her pale face was streaked where tears ran tracks through the dust of her simple morning’s work. Thorvald tried to hug her, but she shook him off.
“Go, go, and find yer father and tell him ye have not forgotten how to fight! Katheryn, come with me, we will gather with the other women at the house o’ Francis Harcus, as it’s the biggest and the strongest in the village. Come on now.”
Katheryn met her foster brother’s eyes. The child who had picked the clams from their beds to eat was gone, and she saw instead in his dark eyes, the man he would become. She nodded once to him.
“Go, brother,” and without another word, he turned and jogged down through the village.
“Ah,” his father called, “praise God ye have come. Here, ye have a little time. They are still pulling in their boats tae the shore. The tide hinders them. Come!”
Thorvald took in the scene. Fishermen and craftsmen, peat-cutters, mackerel-smokers, the village blacksmith and the village bard. Even his father was a simple fisherman, with the nimble fingers which came from mending nets by the light of a peat fire in the evening, and the strong shoulders and powerful back of a man who rowed and hauled nets for his living. A healthy man, even a strong man, but without the build of a swordsman. And yet, for all that the men of his village seemed to Thorvald to be the least warlike imaginable, here they were, armed and armoured, grim faces turned toward the sea, their fists clenched around the shafts of long axes and the hilts of swords.
“Come on, lad,” said his father, “get ready. Ye remember what ye were taught, now?”
“Aye, father,” Thorvald added, a little shakily.
“Good lad.” His father gave him a hearty clap on the shoulder, then helped him into chainmail, which sat heavy across the young man’s shoulders, and a helmet of the old Norse style pointed at the crown with a figured nose-guard. Greaves for his shins, gauntlets for his wrists and forearms. He was also given an axe, a big two-hander, the curved blade glinting wickedly in the morning sun.
“No guns?” asked Thorvald. His father turned from where he had been tightening a strap on his own gear.
“No guns,” he confirmed wryly. “No powder, ye see. And few enough men who could shoot them straight even if we had them. No, lad, we will have tae rely on the old way today.”
All around them, the men of the village were forming up. There could not have been more than thirty-five all told, Thorvald thought as he fell into line beside his father. He stared past the nose guard toward the small boats, which were hauling toward the shore, the men they carried shouting with every pull of the oars. He made them fifty, at least, maybe more. And almost certainly more back on the ship. Why? The thought flickered through his mind as his little party took up their positions at the front of their village. Why? There was nothing here worth a raider’s time. Oh, there was dry peat, and smoked fish aplenty, and perhaps some odd valuables gathered out of sentiment by the local inhabitants, but none of that was worth the time of a heavily-armed raiding party, which this seemed to be. Another thought crossed his mind, and he nudged his father.
“Has a messenger ridden to Kirkwall?”
His father did not look at him but spoke low in reply. “Damned bad luck. The only horse in the village took lame the day before yesterday. Francis Harcus could not send anyone to ride the beast on three legs. He has sent his son Harold off in his wee boat toward Stromness, and he will get a horse there. He has sent the blacksmith’s son, young John, overland. On foot.”
There seemed nothing to say to this. Neither Harold Harcus in his boat nor young John on foot would be getting help for the village soon. The men of the village were on their own.
“Seems like they would have been of more use here,” someone commented. “Young John is handy with that hammer o’ his, and Harold Harcus is no fool either.” Despite the tension, there was a general laugh.
As the men of the village prepared for battle, Thorvald thought back, remembering the training which the simple village folk had undergone. Battle-hardened warriors had been sent from Kirkwall, the biggest settlement in Orkney, to train the men of the village in the art of sword, shield, axe and bow. They had drilled the men in simple melee formation and tactics, and put Francis Harcus, the leading man in the village, in charge of the little squad they had created. The women had been trained how to shoot bolts with an arsenal of old Venetian crossbows that had been brought from God-knows-where. Francis Harcus made sure everyone practised at least once a week, and every six weeks or so, the whole community was rousted out, fully equipped, and induced to fight mock battles on the seafront. Perhaps twice a year, men would come again from Kirkwall to inspect the supplies of weaponry, to talk at length with Francis, and sometimes to watch a demonstration of the village’s basic fighting skills.
At the time, none of this had seemed unusual to Thorvald. He had accepted it with equanimity, just as he had always accepted that fact that he was an orphan, Tom and Freida Fisher were the people he knew as parents. Now, as he faced for the first time the prospect of actually using his fighting skills in earnest, a fleeting thought passed through his mind: it was good they had been trained for this, but it was also just a little odd…
On the beach below them, the first of the Caithness Seal’s transport boats reached the sandbar. Men leapt into the churning surf to drag the boats up above the waterline. Sun glittered on the cold metal of their drawn swords as they turned their faces toward the village.
“Form up!” came the order. Anne was among the raiders, no different from anybody else, her womanhood unidentifiable beneath her leather armour. Slightly smaller than the rest, perhaps somewhat less stocky, but these Caithness pirates and gutter swine from the Americas were not large men. The captain had stayed on board, leaving the command of the raiding party to his first mate, Juarez, a dark-eyed, curly-haired Spaniard who had been sailing with Neil Gow-Sinclair for as long as he could remember. His accent belied his looks, harsh northern Scots through and through, retaining no trace of the warmer climates where his ancestors had grown up.
“Remember,” called the mate, “we are here for the boy. He will be fighting as one of the men, but he will be younger and taller than most. His gear may be finer than the rest of them. They will protect him; watch for the man who they cleave tae. We will take multiple prisoners if we have tae, but let’s just try tae get the boy and get out. I don’t want any mistakes and no burning of homes except what’s necessary for the distraction. March!”
Anne’s heart pounded, and sweat dampened her brow under her leather helm as she moved forward with the others. They were a big group, outnumbering the men who stood awaiting them at the edge of the village by nearly two to one. All around her, the raiders took up their battle cries, but she kept quiet, knowing that her higher-pitched voice would stick out from the rest and draw attention. Instead, she focussed on scanning the defenders, looking for likely candidates for the boy who they had come to capture. There, she thought, in the middle of the group and slightly to the left, there was a figure who stood taller than most, and his gear looked, even at this distance, to be somewhat finer than the rest of the men around him. Juarez let out a shout, and the raiders broke into a run, clanking and rattling in their mismatched armour, ungainly as they closed the distance.
Then they got a shock. From the houses behind the line of defending men, there came a whistling rain of projectiles; around her, men cried out in pain and alarm as the short, stubby crossbow bolts found their marks. Juarez was quick to respond.
“Shields up!” he shouted, and the raiders formed a ragged protective formation while trying to keep up their pace. Anne peered up beneath her shield and saw what she had missed a moment ago – a group of people among the shadows of the low houses. They were unarmoured – the women of the village, she realised – and even as she watched, they raised up crossbows again and loosed a second volley. This time two raiders fell and did not get back up again. Anne felt heavy thuds as two bolts struck her shield and lodged there.
“On, on!” cried Juarez, and the men obeyed. Anne could see the tall youth better now – the sun shone on his high helm, and the figuring on his nose-guard seemed more elaborate than the others. Foolish, that. If you want to hide someone, you should not pick them out by giving them better gear than everyone else. Foolish. He was younger than the rest of them too, for sure. A handsome face, she thought; strong jaw, a long, straight nose, high cheekbones. She hoped they could take him quickly. For a moment, something strange happened. She could have sworn that he met her eyes. It was the most fleeting impression, but there it was. He saw her. Their eyes met. Then the defenders roared and charged down the slope toward the raiders, and the glimpse was gone.
They met with a mighty clash and roar, and almost immediately, Anne was aware of the shock within her party at the sheer ferocity of the defence. Nobody had expected this. The village of Skylness should have been populated with fearful fishermen who would run or drop to their knees begging for mercy at the sight of Neil Gow-Sinclair’s ferocious raiding party. Instead, they met steel with steel, and with volley after volley of crossbow fire. Men tumbled and crumpled in the sand, and the raiders fell back, their first charge repulsed. The defenders roared in fierce victory, and sure enough, Anne saw them gather around the handsome youth with the figured armour. Their leader was a big, brawny man armed with a huge, old-fashioned axe which he wielded single-handed, his round shield in the other. He raised both axe and shield up and roared out an order which she didn’t hear.
Juarez shouted “hold, hold! Remember the target!” and then another volley of crossbow bolts hit them, dropping more men. The raiders reformed around their leader, but the defenders did the same, and they had the advantage of high ground. Anne pushed forward with the rest of her group, flinging her small weight against the back of the man in front as their line braced to bear the brunt of the defenders’ counter-attack. Then, as they met and clashed once again, she squeezed backwards, away from the shoving, shouting press that was the front of the battle. The women with the crossbows were holding their fire, afraid to shoot into the melee. Anne moved to the edge of the group, glanced around, and found her target.
He looked like he was itching to get into the fray but could not. As she had done, he was pushing toward the edge of his group, trying to get to a place where he would have room to swing his axe. One of the men seemed to be shouting to him, trying to get his attention, but he was paying no heed. His eyes were fixed on Juarez, who was trying to keep order. The push of the last charge had run them back down the beach toward the boats – it was not far. As she watched, the handsome youth broke free of his group and ran toward the side of the raiding party. His axe was raised, and the raider he met fell with surprise in his eyes, his sword useless at his side.
The handsome youth roared out his victory and raised his axe to strike again, but Anne hit him a ringing blow on his helmet with the flat of her sword. His axe faltered, as he swayed, trying to turn, but she leapt full upon his back, dropping her shield, her fingers seeking the front of the fancy helmet that had given him away. She found the edge and hauled upward, wrenching it loose as he ineffectually batted her with his fists. Twisting around, he grabbed at her helmet, pulling it free and giving her a solid punch to her jaw. Dropping her sword, she hit him in on the side of the head with his own helmet, using every ounce of adrenaline-fuelled strength she could muster. He went down like a felled tree.
“Prisoner!” she yelled, “Prisoner!” Around her, her compatriots realised that their goal had been achieved. Three men leapt to her aid, and together they dragged the unconscious young man down the beach, his heels leaving a long trail in the wet sand.
“Fall back!” Juarez roared, as the defenders looked on in amazement. “They got him! They got Thorvald!” came the shout. Now was the critical moment. They would try to regain the prisoner. With the others, Anne put her strength into dragging the mail-clad youth over the lip of the boat. Retreating raiders piled in around them, the last few pushing the boat out, and then they were off, the sudden surf catching the fat-bottomed boat and hefting it upward as men fell to at their oars.
On the beach, she saw the last of the raiders fleeing full-tilt toward the other boat. The defenders were giving chase, but the invaders had what they wanted, and they were not going to hang about to argue. As the other boat beat off from the shore and got underway, Anne looked down at the unconscious young man who lay pinned in the bottom of the boat. She was still holding his fancy helmet, but she had lost her own, her shield and sword, too. The left-hand side of his head where she had hit him was swelling, and his left eye was puffy and swollen shut, but his right eye opened. It roved for a moment, then found her and held her in its gaze.
Anne realised that she was smiling.
“Grapples!” shouted the crew in warning from the deck of the Caithness Seal.
Ropes with grappling hooks fell splashing into the choppy water, eager hands reaching out from the small transport boats to grab them and hook them into the anchor points at either end.
“Grapples on!” went up the shout and “Haul up!” came the reply. Strong, practised shoulders were set to the winch wheels high above, the ropes snapped tautly, and the little boats began to rise, seawater sluicing from their shallow hulls as the sea gave them up. Thorvald lay on his belly in the bottom of the boat, glowering, as two men pinned his arms and another sat on his legs. The sides of the raiding vessel soared up like the sides of a cliff, dwarfing the smaller boat. The sailors cried aloud a rhythmic sea-song as they hauled the winch wheels in unison.
Thorvald struggled into a sitting position. His guards, two ugly men on each side, helped by hauling him painfully upward with their hands on his wrists and shoulders. Unwilling to show them his fear, he tried a smile through his swollen face.
“Well, lads,” he mumbled, “looks like ye’ve got me fair and square. I just wish I knew what this is all about, and why ye have taken me so!”
“Hah, he’s got pluck, this one!” guffawed one of his guards, a big, red-haired Scot with a face disfigured by old pox-scars.
“Kind of ye tae say so!” Thorvald replied gallantly, “though it would have been even kinder tae leave me at home. If ye’ve kidnapped me for ransom, I’m sorry tae disappoint ye; I’m just the poor son of a fisherman, and in the whole village there’s barely enough coin tae pay a ransom.”
The transport boat bumped against the side of the Caithness Seal as it creaked up toward the deck, and without really intending to, Thorvald had caught the interest of the rough men with his banter.
“What does the Captain want with him, then?” called one sitting at the end of the boat. “Anne, he’ll whip the hide off ye if it turns out ye’ve taken the wrong man!”
Anne. Thorvald had a strange feeling when he heard the name. Anne? He glanced about and saw her. She was sitting in the boat a little way away, looking at him levelly. She hauled the leather helmet from her head, and the sweat and heat made her short hair stick up crazily around her pale face. She had dark eyes, a small, delicate nose, and red lips cracked with the sea salt in the air and long exposure to the sun. She was breathing deeply and looking straight at him.
What did he see in that gaze? Interest. Excitement. Perhaps a little weariness, sitting in the boat with her back bent and her elbows on her knees, her leather helmet dangling from her long fingers. What on earth, he wondered, was she – a woman clearly a few years younger than him – fighting with this gang of thieves and cutthroats. The surprise and shock must have shown on his face because one of his handlers leaned down and spoke near to his ear.
“Aye, that’s right,” he said. “Ye were captured by a girl!” The men all around him roared with laughter, and a smile flickered around the corners of Anne’s mouth.
Before he could reply, the boat bumped hard against the side as it reached the gunwale, then rocked as the men began leaping in twos and threes onto the deck of the Caithness Seal. Thorvald watched Anne as she clambered competently from the transport to the deck. She was strong, he saw, lean and well-trained, economical in her movements, but still feminine despite her evident toughness. Strong, he thought again, wincing at the memory of the stinging blow she had dealt him with his own helmet. Where was the helmet now? Did she still have it?
She preoccupied his thoughts as his guards manhandled him onto the ship.
“Easy, lads,” he cried jovially, though his tone belied the tension he felt. He caught a flash of pale sunlight on metal. She did still have his helmet. He saw her slip it into a hessian sack as she disappeared toward the back of the ship. Anne, he thought. Her name is Anne. My captor.
“There’s the scum!” came a loud voice, harsh as a crow. Thorvald had to work hard not to recoil as he saw the sneering anticipation on the disfigured face of the man who clumped across the deck toward him. The man was ugly beyond the scarring on his face. He was ugly in a more profound way than just the physical. An ugly soul thought Thorvald.
“That him, Captain?” said one of the men holding Thorvald.
“Aye, that’s him alright,” sneered the captain. “Just as described. He give ye any trouble?”
“Ahh, I thought not. Just as well for him. Looks like a weak, whimpering boy to me.”
Thorvald drew himself up to his full height, and Neil’s face darkened, realising he would have to look up into his prisoner’s face. He drew back his knotty fist as if to hit Thorvald in his midsection, then registered the chainmail and changed his mind. Taking a step back, he surveyed the young man. All around them, men were moving about, sailors hauling the transport boats back over the side, and soldiers clapping each other on the back, pulling off gear and moving aft toward their quarters, where they could be out of the way of the crew on duty.
Neil spat on the deck at Thorvald’s feet, then gave one of the men holding him the smallest nod. The man kicked Thorvald’s legs out from under him, driving him to his knees, and Neil looked down on him with cold satisfaction.
“Strip the mail from him but leave him his clothes and boots for now. Lash him tae the mainmast. I want him where we can see him. Juarez, set sail for home and then come with me tae the quarter-deck tae report.”
He turned on his heel and stalked away, muttering.
Neil’s orders were ruthlessly carried out; his chainmail and an undercoat of good leather were removed, and he was lashed to the main mast with a great coil of rope, his hands bound separately at his sides, and even his ankles immobilised. As Neil had ordered, Thorvald’s elegant boots were left upon his feet – for now. Not knowing what else to do, the lad tried to keep up a merry stream of banter with his captors, but the sight of Anne watching quietly from the bow of the ship unsettled him. He could not read her eyes.
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