The Chieftian’s Curse Excerpt


chieftian-largePrologue

 Year of Our Lord 1069 

The Abbot was forever telling Morag that disobedient daughters would go to hell. He forgot to tell her that hell lay only a few miles from her father’s hall, and here she was in the middle of it, with dire feelings of dread twisting in her belly.

Stay or run?

The battle was over, aye, but not the worst of its aspects. Around her, blood from the dead and dying seeped into the mud, churned earth, giving off a scent like iron. It reminded her of the amber-coloured water in the burn where she liked to bathe. She would never be able to go there now without remembering this carnage.

Through the gloaming, souls rank with despair shifted like wraiths, silent, stealthily amongst the detritus of war. Once the scavengers had finished their gruesome dance, there would be no cover left for the slain, naught but the shroud of swiftly gathering darkness on the edges of the Northumbrian shore.

Then it would be the wolves’ turn.

Real live wolves, unlike her father’s men-at-arms, who fought under the beast’s name—as if it were in truth they who were Baron Farquhar of Wolfsdale’s litter, instead of Morag and her two brothers.

Taking shallow breaths to damp the stench of blood and other scents invading her throat, Morag bent to roll another inert warrior onto his back. Still no sign of her brother Gavyn.

The Black Wolf’s eldest whelp had fallen.

Morag had watched him from behind the shelter of clumped bracken nearby. Her limbs trembling she’d hidden, fearful of discovery. Biting her lower lip till it bled had helped stifle her scream as she lost sight of him. The melee of struggling warriors had made it difficult to keep his colours in view. She studied her present surroundings, certain her last glimpse of Gavyn had been near this spot by the willow grove.

One body then another on and on, Morag lost count of the dead faces she studied, features of both friend and foe, none of them her brother.

Many of the Scots who had flooded across the Northumbrian border at King Malcolm Canmore’s behest would remain where they had fallen. The dead around her lay spattered with grey velvet catkins slashed from the branches.

More waste, but not of her making.

The gloaming deepened around her. A warning that she had little time left. Danger lurked in this place, floating above the dead and scavengers, a greed-filled miasma more terrifying than any fierce predator.

The instant she decided to leave, she found her glance snagged by a large-boned frame, as large as that of the heir to the Baron of Wolfsdale. With no thought for the mud and gore, Morag dropped to her knees.

In death, the ringmail-covered body sprawled face down, spilling over the muddy bank of a brook winding through a fold in the hills. Like so many warriors, he had been hit by a crossbow bolt, the type used by her father’s hired French mercenaries. This one protruded from below the shoulder of his muddied mail shirt.

Gavyn had worn such a one as that.

Fearful of what she might find, Morag swallowed her breath until it seemed the air would burst out through her chest taking her heart with it. Gingerly, she placed both hands on the helm in an effort to turn the warrior’s head, yet fearing to look. She needn’t have worried, the failing light made it impossible to distinguish the features behind the nose-guard.

With both hands, she tugged the cold, mud-smeared metal free of his damp hair, almost glad when a glimmer of colour, a plaid floating in the water, solved her lack of resolution. She no longer needed to look at his face to know it wasn’t Gavyn.

She let the helm slip from her fingers, watched it roll down the bank into the water. What did it matter? The man wouldn’t need its weighty protection anymore.

A rush of regret replaced the fear she’d felt when she believed he was Gavyn. The Scot’s raider had the body of a man, but the face of a boy, probably only a few years older than herself. So handsome, even in death, just to look at him made her chest tighten.

With the dying of the light, her last chance of finding Gavyn disappeared. Her heart felt leaden as she realised the time had come to escape the battle’s aftermath while she was still able. Gathering up her skirts, Morag grasped the linen in small tight fists, raising the bloodied hem out of the dirt to make walking easier as she stepped away from the corpse.

Tears of failure streamed down her cheeks as she turned to search out a safe path.

A gurgle of fear spilled from her lips as, thwarted, she looked down upon the long fingers encircling one of her ankles. Falling to her knees her hands scrabbled in the dirt, seeking a muddied weapon she had glimpsed earlier, desperate to wrest it from the ground before the approaching murk of night dimmed her vision. Blood rushing in her ears, she doggedly sought the weapon’s help in the fight for her life.

Then she heard a rough Scots voice, jagged with fatigue, begging, “Help me.”

Copyright © Frances Housden