Available the end of November!
Hannah eyed the three women skeptically. They huddled together whispering… about her. While most had ignored her arrival at the village, the older woman had been kind enough to give her a piece of bread and cheese. It had been a Godsend after not having eaten for a full day. Though, she should have known something was brewing when the woman had whispered to a young lad and he had dashed off. It had not been long after that that the other two women arrived to huddle and whisper with the woman who Hannah had believed generous.
You never get something for nothing. There is always a price to pay. So ask yourself how much are you willing to pay before you accept anything.
For as long as she could remember her mum had reminded her of that. But she had been so hungry that she had not even considered asking if something was expected of her in exchange for the meager food. Besides, the woman seemed kind enough, even eager to help her.
The older woman, who Hannah heard one of the women call Blair, had a good girth on her, full, rosy cheeks, a smile that had produced permanent lines, which meant she wore it more often than not, brown eyes that twinkled with their own smile and brown hair sprinkled with gray that refused to stay pinned to the top of her head.
Whatever could a woman who seemed so congenial want from her?
The other two seemed to be agreeing with Blair, nodding as she spoke.
Hannah turned her head, chewing on the last of the bread, casting her glance around the village and making it seem that she was not interested in their discussion, but keeping an ear turned to them.
“Someone has to go—”
“Soon or else—”
Hannah strained to hear, but only managed to catch snippets of the conversation.
Two more women suddenly appeared and joined in the huddle, making it more difficult to catch words.
Hannah turned rigid upon hearing it. Was it possible?
She turned with a stretch, so the women would think she was paying them, or anything in particular, any attention. When what she intended was to get a better look at the keep in the not too far distance.
It was a good size, though the dark stone made it appear more ominous than welcoming. There was also signs of decline here and there, some stone blocks crumbling and wood rotting. The land around it was overgrown with thickets, some nearly consuming the wood door that hung crooked, yet was shut closed. It was almost as if the edifice warned people away with its prickly nature. If the keep was home to who she thought it was, she could understand why.
Slain MacKewan… the savage.
Hannah stifled the shiver of fear that ran through her.
Slain MacKewan was a fierce Highland warrior who showed no mercy to his opponents, and could fell more men than three Highlanders combined, or so it was told. He had fought beside two other warriors who were just as feared and revered, one more than the other two… the beast and the demon. They had battled side by side against invading enemies and had ended land disputes, some for the King and some for themselves. If the tales were true, and Hannah had always thought that there was a kernel of truth to most tales, then this village she had stopped at belonged to the savage.
She gave another stretch so the women would think that she continued to pay no mind to anything, then pulled the faded blue, thin scrap of cloth from her hair and let her bright red curls break free. Her hair always had a mind of its own, escaping ties and combs that tried to tame it or keep it imprisoned. She preferred to give it free rein, but her mum had told her to beware. That wild, red hair like hers enticed men and she needed to keep it tamed. Her mum had been right about that, but then her mum had been right about many things, and she missed her dearly. She ran her fingers through the soft, long strands and reluctantly gathered them together to secure with the scrap of cloth once again. She did not need to cause herself any more problems than she already had.
She turned once again, slowly this time, wanting to take in most of the surrounding village. Surprisingly, the place seemed to thrive and appeared well-maintained. Gardens had been made ready for planting, thatched roofs—damaged by the winter—were being repaired, and bedding was thrown over tree branches to air and refresh from their long winter confinement.
The villagers themselves seemed well-fed and their garments were in fine shape. If the village did so well, why not the keep? Were people so afraid of Slain MacKewan that they feared going near the keep.
She turned to face the group of women who now were at nine, and all nine of them were staring at her.
“Hannah,” Blair said again, keeping a smile stuck to her face. “You did say your name was Hannah, right?”
“Aye, I did, and once again I am grateful for your generosity,” Hannah said and let a smile loose, something she did not often do.
The women’s eyes turned wide and small gasps were caught.
Hannah never thought herself beautiful, though her mum warned her otherwise, especially when she smiled. Her mum used to say her smile was like being kissed by the sun, warm and welcoming, making you want to linger in it. Her green eyes, the color of the grass-covered rolling hills on a clear spring day also added to her fine features.
The women started whispering and nodding again until the unease in Hannah’s stomach forced her to speak, “Is there something wrong?”
The women turned silent and a slim women nudged Blair in the side.
Blair took a step forward, her smile fading. “We have a bit of a problem and we are hoping you might be able to help us with it.”
It was Hannah’s turn to remain silent, letting Blair know she would listen, but make no comment until she heard what they had to say.
Blair continued. “Our chief is a good man, but not an easy man to get on with. Most think he is more comfortable when in battle, for he cannot seem to find peace, even with himself, otherwise. He lives mostly alone in the keep, except for Helice.” She shook her head and the other women joined in. “He brought her here when he returned from battle one day. She oversees the keep and is the most antagonistic woman God has ever created.”
The other women nodded vigorously.
“Between Helice and S—our chief, no one in the village wishes to serve in the keep,” Blair explained.
It was not lost to Hannah that Blair stopped herself from referring to the chief by name, which made Hannah believe she had been right. This was the home of the sav—Slain MacKewan. She could not bring herself to think of him as a savage or she might be too fearful to stay and she needed to remain here. Otherwise, she had nowhere else to go and her fate would be sealed.
“The women who have gone to the keep to help—”
“Last not even a day, not one of them able to tolerate Helice and if by chance they happen upon the chief,” —the slim woman who interrupted Blair shivered— “none are willing to go.”
“Gwynn,” Blair said, shaking her head.
Gwynn threw her hands up. “What? Do you expect us to send her to the keep completely blind as to what she will face? She will run screaming from the place in no time.” She threw her hands up again. “Why do we even bother? No one will please Helice or—”
“I will accept the position,” Hannah said and every woman’s mouth dropped open.
It took several moments before Blair was able to speak. “You will go to the keep and serve there?”
“Aye, I will,” Hannah said with a nod. “I have no place to go and I cannot be a burden to your clan. If this is the way I can seek a home here, then I will do what I must.”
What other choice did she have?
Her thought was not answered, for she had yet to find one.
“We would be ever so grateful,” Blair said.
“Do not get your hopes up, Blair,” another woman said. “We have had others who have agreed like this one and was gone before the day was done. Besides, we have not told her how the chief enjoys women.”
“He has never forced himself on a woman and he certainly bothers no women from the village,” Blair said in defense of Slain MacKewan.
“Then why do the women travelers who stop here and make their wares available to him always leave in tears?” the one woman demanded.
Blair looked to the slim woman. “You know why Wilona. You heard what at least three of those women told us.”
Wilona gave a brief snort before reluctantly admitting, “The women told us that they had never known such immense pleasure with a man and they feared they never would again. And that he showed no interest in wanting to see them again should they journey back this way. He even told one, who had been insistent upon returning to him, that he had no desire to poke her again.”
“He is a cruel bastard he is,” another woman said.
“Or is he a man who knows his mind and speaks it,” Blair said.
“You always defend him,” Wilona accused.
“He is our chief and a good one, seeing that the clan is protected and cared for. We do not starve even in the harshest of winters and our garments are not threadbare. We have a good healer in Neata and warriors who protect us. What more do you want, Wilona?’
Wilona rubbed her arms. “A chief who does not make my skin shiver when he walks through the village.”
“If he makes your skin shiver, can you imagine how our foes feel when they battle him?” Blair said.
All the women nodded, even Wilona.
“It is not an easy task we ask of you,” Blair said, turning to Hannah. “And if it is not one you find acceptable, we will understand and hold no ill will toward you.”
This was by far an easier task than any she had been through lately, not that she was not fearful of what she would face in the keep. She would be a fool not to fear, for fear instilled courage and strength, or so her da believed.
“I will do my best,” Hannah said.
“You still agree after what we have told you?” Wilona asked, not quite believing her.
“I will heed your warnings and do what I can,” Hannah said, reminding herself that she had to. No matter what, she had to stay here with the Clan MacKewan.”
Blair looked to each of the other women and they in turn nodded. She turned to Hannah once again. “You should go to the keep now, since our chief gave us until today to fill the position or else Helice will come and choose someone herself.”
“There is no need of that now, since I have accepted,” Hannah said, once again confirming her willingness, and all the women smiled and nodded with relief.
“We are here if you should need us,” Blair said.
“Not to help at the keep,” Wilona hastily added.
Blair shot her a scolding look before focusing on Hannah again. “You are welcome anytime to share a brew and talk.”
The other women nodded.
Hannah kept her smile to herself. Gossip. It was the mainstay of any village.
“Am I to bring anything with me?” Hannah asked.
Blair shook her head. “The keep has all it needs or all you need.”
With a nod, Hannah took her leave and headed to the keep.
All you need.
Did the keep have all she needed? Would she find what she searched for there?
Fatigue mixed with sorrow weighed heavily upon her, but then she had been walking for days, not sure if she had been going in the right direction. Her body ached, not only from the endless journey but from the bruises it had suffered, especially her one arm. It had remained weak from the torture and she feared it may never grow as strong as it once had been.
She, however, had remained strong and determined, now more than ever. She would survive. No matter what it took, she would survive.
Her fear grew as she drew closer to the keep. It certainly did not welcome, it’s neglect even more prominent up close. The thickets had thorns and after one scratch, tearing the sleeve of her already worn blouse, she was careful not to get too close. It certainly served as a deterrent to anyone who approached.
She suffered another tear to her skirt hem when she stepped up to the door, having caught it on a branch she had to step over.
How the door stayed closed with how crooked it appeared, she did not know, but it was shut firm. She stood staring at the thick door, wondering if anyone would hear her knock. Not sure that anyone would, Hannah pounded on the door with her fist.
She waited and waited, giving time for those within to reach the door. After several minutes passed with no response, Hannah pounded on the door again. She jumped back, almost stumbling into the thickets, as the door suddenly popped open, though only a bit, startling her. It hung on an angle, the one hinge appearing loose. The door began to open slowly, bit by bit, creaking as it did as if in protest of being disturbed or by a slow hand that was not sure if it should answer the summons.
Uncertainty grew her anxious and fright had her heart thudding in her chest as she waited to see who would appear. When no one did, she called out a greeting, “Latha math.”
Silence was the only thing that reached her ears.
She called out once again. “Latha math.”
When still no response came, she realized she had only one choice, push the door open and enter. Her stomach churned as her hand reached out and pushed at the door. The creak turned to a squeak as the door opened to reveal a yawning darkness. Hannah hesitated, her feet not willing to take her any further and her heart pounding so madly that she feared any sound would be lost to her.
The dark had never bothered her until recently, until she learned that monsters did really live there. Now it held a fear that shivered her down to her soul.
It took all her willpower to push past the fear that prickled her skin and nearly froze her limbs, as she forced herself to step forward into the darkness.