Ceana knew that her peace and quiet had come to an end the moment she heard her name on the wind. It had been too much to ask for that she'd be granted a moments solitude to enjoy her book. Being a female and the only daughter of the lard, her Father didn't approve of her reading. So she was forced to do so in secret and a large Scots pine by the sea had become her haven. She spent most of her time in her tree, much to her Fathers chagrin. He expected her to spend her days with the rest of the women, stitching pretty pictures and waiting for a husband. But, like her mother before her, that sort of life would never suit her.
"Ceana, ye're needed in the dining hall!" Ceana groaned and snapped her book shut. She folded the book in a cloth to protect it from the weather and hid her treasure in the branches of the tree She begun the challenging climb down. Her skirts repeatedly caught on the bark and tore small rips into the fabric when she tried to pull them loose. How she wished she could wear a breeches like the sassenach did. As a girl she had been jealous of the young boys or her clan, with their freedom of movement and freedom of life.
If only her uncle would return from his travels. He was the only one who understood her and accepted her as she was. She missed sitting by his feet late at night. She with a book in her hands and him with his whiskey. It was in those times that she could be herself without fear of judgment.
However he had not returned for some three months and, under her Fathers rule, she was to be as he told her to be. She made sure to dust herself off and fix her hair until her appearance wouldn't require public chastising, a method of punishment the lard was most fond of. If he should ever discover how she acted when no one was around, then there were no doubt in her mind that what little freedom she had now would be stripped from her. And she would be beaten in the great hall for all the clan to see.
Her Father, the lard of McMillan keep, was a harsh man after all. He ran his clan with an iron fist and it was a horrifying experience to have those sharp eyes directed into ye're very soul. And if ye were unfortunate enough to incur his wrath, the fear of punishment again would make even the proudest warrior submissive.
Her mother had been beaten all the days of her life. From what little Ceana remembered of Aila,before her death when Ceana was only four, her mother had a stunning smile and was the sort to radiate warmth from her very soul without any effort. She could remember times spent on her mother lap as she played with Ceana's hair, humming the tune of a song not of this region. Her mother had come from a clan far to the west. Her Father had saw her bathing in the loch, found her enchanting and taken her as his wife. That was all Ceana had even been told; her mother hadn't liked to speak anymore on the subject.
She took the entrance through the kitchens because Cook was preparing supper and the smells always managed to cheer her up. At one time, a horde of food could be found coming from the kitchens but now the cellars were bare and the clan starving.
The wars had depleted most of the clans funds and with no coin in which to pay the the wages, many of her clan had moved on. Even though Cook insisted he would never abandon his clan, Ceana knew it must be hard to prepare all the meals with every little help.
He gave her an encouraging nod as she past and she smiled her gratitude. Her heart pounded in her chest and with each step she took towards the dining hall the sinking feeling in her stomach got worse. She dreaded what awaited her at the end of the hall. Had Father found out about her treasure? Did he want her to sell more of her mothers things?
She took a moments pause at the doorway to compose herself. When her hands stopped shaking she deemed herself ready and stepped into the dining hall. Three rows of tables guided her eyes straight towards the imposing figure of Robert McMillan. He sat in his chair at the head table with a large plate chicken before him. His men sat all around him, mugs full of ale.
Ceana cast her eyes down so he wouldn't see her anger. The clan was so poor they couldn't light their chambers at night, and yet he had a whole chicken to himself and his soldiers were drunk.
The hall was freezing cold despite the summer warmth outside and the hanging tapestries swung ominously in the breeze. She hated this room, much preferring to eat her meals in her room or outdoors. The tall arched roof made her feel small and insignificant.
"Come, Ceana. Sit." Chicken fell from his lips as he shoved it into his mouth. His gray beard caught the fallen bits and they made his skin with grease.
Ceana swallowed her bile and did as he asked, taking a seat at the table next to her Fathers right hand man, Ian. He snorted like a pig and drink his ale. He also had an odor like he had been sleeping with the pigs as well. He had made it clear that he was attracted to her because she often felt his eyes one her breasts. The only thing that kept her safe was the fact the her Father would never let her be spoiled by a bastard.
She self consciously readjusted the scarf around her neck when she felt eyes on her again. The scarf hid a terrible scar she was received when boiling water splashed her neck and upper chest as a young girl. The skin was now puckered and malformed and so she wore her mothers green scarf to cover it. She hated when people stared at it.
"What did ye wish ta speak ta me about, Faither?" She asked delicately as to not bring any of his anger down upon her head. He was the lard and he wasted no moments to remind everyone of it.
"Ye are eighteen now and well past due for a husband." He snorted the contents of his nose into a used towel he kept next to his plate and slipped his hand under the table so the dog could lick his fingers. "I've received a offer from Lard Douglas for ye're hand in marriage."
Ceana's heart fell to its death into the pit of her stomach. The men around her continued to eat as nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. All the while she died inside. She had come to her Father when he bid her to and she had known that something horrible was about to happen. But she hadn't expected this news. Sure, she had knew this time would come eventually. This was what was expected from her, she had been told this for her entire life. Woman were sold to men every day. But she had fooled herself into thinking that no man would have her, on account of her scars
"But, Faither..." Her tongue felt numb and heavy in her mouth like she desperately needed a drink of water.
Lard Douglas had a reputation of beating his wives to death. He had gone through three already, all of them dying of mysterious causes within the first year of marriages. And that wasn't enough, he was reportedly a hideous man with no teeth and a balding head. She was revolted to think of his meaty hands on her body.
"Why should he want me?" Ceana managed to get the word out past the fog in her head, and fear for her future.
"Why am I ta know why?" Her Father spat. "All I care about is him taking ye off my hands and paying for him ta do so. Five hundred coin! That's what he'll give for ye!" He shouted out a booming laugh that made Ceana flinch at the volume.
Ceana swallowed the lump in her throat and cast her eyes down to her hand which lay clasped in her lap. Her knuckles were white from the strength of her grip as she began to play all the scenarios in her mind as to her options. She had very little money, having already sold most of her valuables. She wouldn't have a penny to her name or any experience servicing outside the castles walls. Then, it was a very great possibility that she would be hunted down by her Father and dragged back. He would not let this money pass him by that easily and would be likely to beat her to death himself.
Or, she would marry this man. Live her life in misery and under constant fear of her husband killing her for sport. It would be a prison smaller than the one she already had.
How she wished her mother were alive.
A sudden uproar just down the hall brought her own of her thoughts and she spun in her seat to see what caused it. A rare bout of laughter filled the miserable castle and she felt a small glimmer of hope arose from the darkness.
Uncle Fergus had returned.
The sight of the larger man coming into the dining hall, a sack of rabbits tossed over his shoulder and a maid clinging around his waist for attention made her smile and arise from her seat.
"Good day ta all!" His voice boomed against the walls as he strolled towards their table, his men at his heels looking well fed and satisfied.
Ceana frowned. They were supposed to bring coins and medicine for the sick but instead appeared to have spent three months stuffing their faces and laying with bar maids.
"Fergus." Her Father arose from the table and opened his arms for an embrace. "Welcome home brother, ye were sorely missed." The siblings embraced. Ceana thought it looked loving but she knew her uncle hated her Father for being chosen as lard over himself. Her Father, being born only a year before Fergus, gave his the title after the previous lard died. Ceana couldn't help but wonder if things could have been different if Fergus had been the first born son.
Fergus clapped his brother proudly on the back and let the rabbits fall on the table. Ceana quickly reached out and caught a dish that had been destined for the floor.
"Ah, thanks niece." He cast her a warm smile and reached over to affectionately pat her cheek, as he always did. The heat of his head was beautiful against her chills skin. Ceana's broken heart stitched itself back together because of it. Fergus was more of a Father then the stranger across from her ever was.
"Welcome uncle Fergus. Was ye're trip successful?" Ceana clutched the dish to her chest and waited for good news. Cooks wife needed that medicine. As did a lot of others who wouldn't fare months end without it.
Fergus gave a tight smile and reached into his sporran and pulled from it a small leather sack. He tipped the contents from his pocket and into his upturned palm. Ceana's heart tore again at the sight of a mere 20 coins.
"That's all?" She whispered meekly. That would hardly pay for the candles to light the halls let alone the expensive herbs from the traveling medicine man.
"Damn it! That's not enough!" Father thundered and slammed his palm down on the table causing the glasses to teeter and spill. Good ale wasted as it pours through the cracks and onto the floor by their feet. "ye were gone three months and spent more coin then ye earned!"
Fergus sighed and tossed the coins around in his palm. "We've broken even."
Father, with a rare bout of forgiveness, cupped Fergus on the shoulder and gave him a comforting squeeze. "Dinna fash ye'rself brother, I've a plan ta earn us Five hundred coins."
Her Uncles eyes shot up with surprise and he cast her a questioning glance. She quickly adverted her gaze. Her Father's voice was so proud of his plan as if sending her to her almost certain death matter as much to him as the spilt ale.
"Oh aye? And how is that, exactly?" Fergus's voice had grown darker and the clinking of the coins grew louder. Ceana knew that when he heard the news it would infuriate him. Her only hope lay with him convincing his brother against the course of action he was taking, but still the future was bleak.
When Father explained to him what that plan was, Fergus grew red in the face and clutched his hand over the coin.
"'Ye'd do this ta ye're daughter." He inquired with disgust. "Ye'd sell her ta a mad man likely ta beat her ta death!"
Father may love his brother as much as he was capable of loving anyone, but he would ever stand for someone questioning him. As expected he snapped his hand back and narrowed his sharp eyes. Ceana wasn't even on the end of the glare but she retreated back a couple of steps anyway.
"While ye spent ye're time riding across the land, we've been here starving! Fourteen people are dead and many have run away ta the south for money. Cowards!" He spat as if he cared anything for those people. He surely didn't even know their names and yet he hid behind them.
"She donna deserve ta be the sacrifice!" Fergus slammed the coins down on the table with an angry slap. The sound echoed around the room as everyone fell silent. He opened his mouth as if he wished to say more but instead he growled in frustration and stomped off out of the hall.
"Ungrateful little shit." Fergus hissed and stuffed the coins into his pocket with such greed in his eyes.
Ceana gently set the plate back down on the table and quietly made her exit as well. She needed to be alone to compose her thoughts before she went to talk with uncle. He was most likely fuming in the solitude of his library and cursing the slime that was his brother. Perhaps he was even plotting her salvation.
Ceana cast her face to the strong wind and inhaled the scent of her country. McMillan keep was not her home. It had never been. And if she escaped into the wilds of Scotland then so be it. Her country would welcome her with open arms, she was sure of it.
It was late in the night when Ceana crept from her warmth bed. Father would have drunken himself to self in the dining hall as he'd done nearly every night of her life. He wouldn't see her sneaking down the pitch black halls towards Fergus and his library. She hadn't been able to sleep anyway for her doom weighed heavily on her mind. Fergus must have a plan for her escape, he must.
Even though there were no candles to light her way, she had made the trip so many times that she knew she could walk it in her sleep. Four doors down and on her right was the library. She didn't even bother knocking for she knew in her heart that her uncle would not sleep this night either with worry for her.
The door creaked a bit as she pushed it open and shut it once she had slipped inside. She turned to see the familiar sight of Fergus in his favorite chair with his feet propped on the desk before him. The only thing missing was his glass of whiskey. He cast eyes in her direction and attempted to smile.
"Hello, lass." He sounded tired. He must have been riding for days to get home and returned to more trouble with the clan then there was when he had left. She almost felt sorry that, because of his idiot brother, he was forced to shoulder more responsibility. How many times had she wished she could had the confidence to shoulder some of that responsibility as well, if it would help him sleep at night.
She walked forward, her bare feet contently following the path of lined fur until it led her to his chair. She knelt beside legs and laid her head on his thigh.
"Do not fret, my dear." He whispered, his hand resting on the top of her head as if she were a girl of eight again and had had a nightmare. "We shall think of something."
Ceana let her eyes drift shut to the soothing stroke of his hands through her hair. "I'm scared, uncle." She attempted finally. "He will sell me ta that man ta pay for his drink."
"I willna let him." Fergus snapped furiously and jerked his chair back as he arose to his feet. With no where to rest her head she sat on the floor in misery as he paced the room.
"What are ye ta do ta stop him? He is lard of the castle and has corrupted many ta follow his orders without question. There are twenty men at his side while I have just ye. I'm sorry but it is the truth." She insisted when she saw him stiffen under the insult that wasn't good enough to defend her honor. "The only option I have is ta run way."
"And go where?" He rubbed his head in frustration. "The rest of Scotland is as poor as we are, they canna shelter ye."
Ceana folded her hands in her lap. "I can work. Cook has taken me under his wing when I begged him ta let me help him. I could find a post in another castle."
"Yer Faither would never let ye go that easily. He'd hunt ye ta the ends of the earth if ye would bring his five hundred coin." He suddenly stopped his pacing and appeared to sink within his deeper thoughts. Ceana straighten her spine, her weariness gone.
"Ye have a plan! Ye must tell me what it is!" She cried aloud before she remembered to keep her voice quiet. "Uncle, tell me what ye're thinking."
Fergus let out a heavy sigh and turned his back to her. "No, lass, it would never work." But Ceana didn't loose hope, when uncle Fergus bore the expression he had now it meant that his scholarly brain had discovered an idea. A dangerous idea, at most times, but an idea none the less. Ceana was desperate for anything.
"Tell me. "She demanded, arising to her feet and casting her best glare at his back. She felt a sudden anger that she'd neglected to feel before. She would no longer be the submissive daughter who let others run her life, any more. With a fire that sparked in her soul, she determined that she would fight for her life.
He turned to gaze at her over his shoulder for a moment, as if to judge her commitment to her demand. After a few second, he seemed satisfied with what he found and strolled over to the desk. Even though the surface was cluttered with papers and book, he found what he was looking for with such ease. He must have been thinking on this for a while.
Ceana remained where she stood as he dusted off the cover and opened the pages.
"I've been considering this for some time now." He sighed as he flipped through the dusty old pages of a book that looked to be over a hundred years old. "But situations were never this dire so I refused ta risk it."
Whatever it was, Ceana knew it must be important. She found her confidence wavering as she waited in silence for her uncle to speak again. He read for a minute or so before he inserted his thumb in the crease and held it out for her to take. Ceana tried to read the expression in his eyes but the answer eluded her. Her hands threatened to tremble as she reached out to carefully take what he offered. Making sure not to smudge the written words with her fingers, she turned the book towards her and finally got a look at what it said.
But it didn't say anything. At least not in words. Instead she found a picture, a map of sorts, but a very crude one. It looked like it had been rushed, as if the person to draw it had very little time to get down on paper what was in his head.
It showed a loch or a body of water, she knew that much. On the bank, a small tunnel was drawn. One that lead from the water and under the dirt for miles and miles until the first drawing ended. The continuation was a smaller second drawing below it that clearly showed a large wall, something like a castle wall but larger than any she had ever seen. It was twice the height of a pine tree that was used for scale beside it.
Ceana frowned and glanced up at her uncle. "I don't understand."
"It's a drawing I did during the wars. That's Dùghlas Castle."