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Life is short in the old village where Muira, a young girl blossoming into womanhood, has spent all her days, but her life is about to begin when she begins her new position as servant to Castle Campbell. The old laird and the old castle are cold compared to her home with her mother and brother, but the innocent girl will learn the pleasures of womanhood when she stumbles on a dark secret. The secret consumes her and leaves her breathless for more of what she knows is sinful, but nobody told her sin would feel so good.
He was a monster. My upbringing had taught me that such creatures should not suffer to live, and yet I loved him and lusted for him.
“Muira? Muira, where are you?” I heard a voice call.
I sighed and set down on the ground the small flower that was in my hand. There were hundreds like it around me for I sat in the midst of a thick patch of heather. The plants were a colorful sea of fragrance that wrapped around me and comforted me like a soft blanket.
“Muira!” came the voice.
“Coming, Mother!” I called back.
I stood and hurried down the steep hill to the small stone house at the edge of the village. A meager garden stood behind the stone walls, and there was a strong thatch roof atop its sturdy frame. A curl of gray smoke rose from the chimney and into the gray sky over the large village where I had been born and raised.
There were dozens of similar cottages placed on terraces with a few larger ones nestled among them and along the road. A single road meandered between them, but there were countless paths to the outhouses, wells, and the far-flung fields of the hilly valley in which we all resided.
The village as a whole sat atop a large plateau over the green fields of the valley. The mountains above us were rocky and barren but for a few patches of grass, but the fields below were thick with the promise of a good harvest of wheat. Even as I stood there I beheld the small figures of people as they swept across the fields to gather the food before the autumn rains and frost ruined the year’s crop.
Beyond the fields towered more tall mountains, and the opposite side of the valley still held its spots of wilderness. Thick forests of ancient trees climbed the gentle slopes and abutted the fields. The only break in the trees came from a spring that meandered down the mountain and cut through the thick forest on its way to the opposite end of the valley.
The only residences of any great consequence were the large church, and the grand stone castle a half mile from the village and up the steep, grassy slope. The church had a tall, peeked roof of thatch, and a simple bell rang and summoned us to mass. Each family attended and sat upon the thick, uncomfortable wooden benches, and the good father read us our fill of brimstone and fire. My family attended frequently, as did the others in the village, and our souls were thought to be safe from the devil’s influence.
How wrong I was, and how closely was the sudden change to involve the castle and its inhabitants. The Laird of the castle, Laird Kynan Campbell, owned the village, the stone houses, and all the green, rocky fields. Shepherds tended his many flocks and farmers grew and harvested his crops. We paid him a tax to live on his land and be under his protection.
The lands of the Laird Campbell sat on one of the larger roads from England to my home of Scotland. The inn and taverns provided for travelers, and Laird Campbell demanded his bit of tribute from the merchants who plied their trade along the road. The trade made him wealthy, and the other Lairds outside the valley came and worshiped at his table.
I paused on the hill and looked down on the wide, rutted road that traveled through the village some two dozen yards from my family’s home. A gilded carriage rolled its way through the village and onward past the castle to one of the far-flung provinces of Scotland. The weather was generally inhospitable, but even on sunny days the castle cast its shadow over the village. My father would say that the lairds of the castle would never let us forget who was master.
“Muira! Hurry or your food will be cold!” my mother shouted. She stood at the edge of the garden which stood at the bottom of the path on which I lingered.
My mother was scarcely thirty-five, but years of toil had left her hands wizened and her skin darkened by the sun. Though she was weathered, a hundred years couldn’t dim the bright smile on her face nor the beautiful shine of her long tress of brown hair. It was her one source of pride, besides her garden and my brother and I. We were her only children and reminders of a husband and father dead these two years. He had protected the village from a raid by a rival clan, and died for his bravery. The laird had given us some small compensation, but we were now in dire straights.
In her hands was a grass basket to pluck the garden’s remaining food before the autumn frost swept his chilly hands over the food and left it rot. I hurried down the path and moved so fast that I was hardly able to stop when I reached my mother. I stumbled into her arms and turned my head to smile up at her.
“Good morning, Mother,” I greeted her.
She sighed and shook her head. “Whatever am I going to do with such a wild lamb as you?” she teased.
I straightened and clasped her hands. “This lamb shall never be tamed.”
“What an awful thing to say. You must marry some time,” she scolded me.
I hardly dared imagine a husband willing to invest his wealth and life in me. There was ample meat on me when the garden was wrong, but that did not fetch me a husband. My frame was not the slight which was then in vogue. Though my face was pretty, my hips were a little too wide and my waist not quite as thin as many men preferred.
I laughed and spun us in a half circle so my back faced the cottage. “But not this day. This day I start my fortune.”
This was the day when I would begin my work as a servant in the laird’s kitchen, as my mother had done before me. The woman who commanded the kitchen was an old friend of my mother, and had promised to take me on and teach me her trade. The kitchen was great for many lairds and ladies occupied the great laird’s time and supper table.
My mother’s face fell and she squeezed my hands. “But I will miss you. And your brother with me,” she reminded me.
There was a price for the position. I was required to reside at the castle. Visits to my mother and brother would be infrequent, but my coming would be a double boon when I brought my pay and presence to them.
I pecked a kiss on her cheek. “Absence makes the heart grow stronger, and I will be sure to visit so often you will wonder if I have truly left.”
“You have not, and will not if you don’t eat your breakfast and be off with you,” she scolded me.
“Yes, Mother,” I obeyed.
I hurried around the house and inside through the only door. Our cottage was small, but two rooms, but we were proud of the whole of it. My great-grandfather had built the cottage himself for his bride, and it held memories of many generations on my father’s side. My mother was raised in another home nearby. Life was harsh, and we found ourselves without any relatives save our small group of three.
My brother, Aindreas, sat at the small wooden table with a bowl of porridge set in front of him. He was a lad of ten born eight years after me, and a loving nuisance to me that decade of years.
“You’ll be late,” he warned me as I sat before my own steaming bowl of porridge.
The gruel was all we could afford when my mother managed but a small service of cooking and washing for the inn and other neighbors of more wealth than ourselves.
“You sound like Mother,” I teased him as I partook of the healthy but plain food.
“Is that so wicked?” my mother wondered as she followed me into the cottage with her basket full of food.
“I don’t think so, Mother,” Aindreas spoke up.
“Traitor. . .” I murmured.
He stuck his tongue at me and I returned the favor.
“Enough of that,” Mother scolded us as she took our empty bowels. “Muira, it’s time to go, and don’t forget your cloak.”
My cloak was of the coarsest make, but Mother had sewn a lining of wool between two slips of skin to ensure a warmth that the finest cloth could not give. The castle outside the kitchens was drafty, and a cold was a risk of illness or worse. I was glad for the warmth as I slipped on the cloak, for the castle was a half mile from the village, but only as the crow flew. It was a good mile up the road.
My mother stepped up to me and wrapped the hood tighter around my head. “Mind Aili and you can’t go wrong,” she advised me. Aili was the cook of the castle, and Mother’s old friend. “And don’t go prying into anybody’s business but your own. God rewards those who refrain from gossip and intrigue.”
“I will, Mother,” I promised.
She paused and looked me over. There were tears in her eyes, and she choked on her words. “My little girl. How proud your father would be.”
I smiled and kissed her cheek. “If he isn’t now, I will be sure to make him proud.”
She wiped her eyes and nodded her head. “All right then, off with you now before I change my mind.”
My mother and brother followed me to the door. I walked onto the road and paused to turn to them. They waved, and I waved back. A small puff of smoke swept from the chimney as though my home spoke its own farewell. Then I turned my back on my past and headed for my future.
As I said before, the road led through the village. Many of the men were in the fields harvesting the last of the laird’s vast store of wealth, but the women were at work outside their homes preparing food and dress for winter.
“Good morning, Muira!” one of them, a Bean Clatcher, called to me. Her husband was fortunate to be a stone mason, and he was given constant work at the old castle. “Going to the castle?”
“Aye!” I replied.
“Say hello to my old man for me, will you?” she requested.
“I will!” I promised.
“So the day’s finally come?” another woman from a nearby cottage called. She was Bean Kerr, and her husband managed some land under the watch of the laird’s steward, Chamberlain.
“Aye,” I answered.
“Then a good day for you, and beware the laird’s son,” Bean Clatcher warned me.
I smiled and bowed my head. “I will.”
Bean Kerr glared at the other matron. “What are you doing putting silly notions into her head with that old tale? She’ll get her ears boxed off if’n she gets to telling tales around the laird.”
Bean Clatcher waved her hand at Bean Kerr. “She’s a might smarter than that, and knows I’m only fooling with that old story. We all know he’s dead and buried.”
The tale of which they spoke concerned Laird Campbell’s only son and heir, Tristan Campbell. He had been a constant sight through the village for most of his life, stately upon his fine horse and incredibly handsome, but no one had set eyes on him for a good seven years. At that time the laird had taken to visiting his lands less frequently, and when he did sally forth his carriage was always bedecked in black mourning cloth.
“And I tell you there’s more than stories to those tales. The laird was always a cruel man,” Bean Kerr argued.
“I must be going,” I reminded them.
“And God be with you, Muira!” Bean Clatcher prayed.
“And God watch you!” Bean Kerr chimed in.
I waved to them and went on my way little dreaming how the strange start of my journey would echo throughout my day.