Wind of the Highlands
Rhys strode silently across the grass, dark grey eyes rolling across the vibrant rolling and rich green hills. It was a moment of sweet respite that he dare not miss. Not the cold or even the grey landscape seemed shrouded in a cloud of thick, swirling mist that seemed to render everything entirely invisible could keep him from it. He snorted slightly, drawing his hand upward as he scratched at his chin. He was the third chieftain of Clan MacKinnon, but he knew well enough the rumors that ran their lands. Indeed, his clan was none to be trifled with, Clan MacKinnon was infamous for being one of the strongest clans in the upper highlands. But, these things were only the surface of Rhys' importance. Indeed, the man was well on his way to becoming one of the most feared chieftains this side of the Hebrides,
"Milord?" Rhys turned to see a young man and snorted.
"Pray, tell, why you have been spying on me?" Rhys remarked, his words heavily influenced by the dialect of their region. The boy, William peered back at him, gulping slightly.
"Apologies, my lord. I will come back with the chief," he muttered.
"Spit it out then, laddie. Ah, the woods prefer my solitude." Rhys remarked, snorting once more as he continued to stride onward.
"He says there's a lassie come from the Brodie clan. He wants you to accompany her back to her clan."
"Does he? And an audience is demanded, I presume." Rhys said with a deep-felt sigh. This was just the burden of his many duties, but Rhys felt the long journey across the country might be a welcome adventure. Less, the lassie was one of those sassy ones with a mouth as sharp as his blade was fine.
"Aye, the lassie seems taint. She is something for the thought." Rhys chuckled at William and shook his head in slight.
"Aye, the Brodie Clan is rumored to have the best beauties in all of Scotland - but beauty is nothing if a lass has no wit. How did you learn she was of Clan Brodie?" Rhys asked.
"I did not, I only bring the message the chief tasked me to bring you, milord." He said she is called Ailith." William murmured.
"Ailith of Clan Brodie? Well, let’s get to meeting the lass. I am sure that the chief will want us to depart within the fortnight to return her to Brodie."
"Aye, milord," William murmured. Rhys chuckled, the boy was entirely too agreeable too often and he wondered when it might prove to be his very own downfall.
"A looker the lassie is, you say? Tell me, what color is this lass’s hair?" Rhys asked curiously. A soft chuckle emitted from William as he looked back at him.
"Ah, Ooo aye, milord - her hair is the color of the setting sun; fiery, bright, and as crimson as any of the blood we have shed."
"Ah, a redhead lass. no doubt her temper is as raging as and heated as the very sun itself." The lad mumbled. Rhys snorted slightly, his eyes rolling from William as they raked in the countryside. A light fog still seemed to hang above them, making the landscape appear milky and ethereal.
“On days like this, the sun is ever so missed and the warmth of a good fire a blessing beyond measure. So very much, on these cold nights. Maybe the lassie will bring the clan both?” Rhys finally uttered, turning his head back toward William, “But you, young cousin, should know spying on me is not wise. The taste of steel is not to your favoring.” He mumbled. William groaned and gave a light sigh.
“Ah think maybe you are right, but the message about the lassie had to be delivered. My commission is done.” William replied. He gave a shrug and turned to walk back over the soggy emerald grass of the hillside and Rhys chuckled lightly. In his heart, William was his responsibility. When his mum had died in childbirth and his father had died in battle, Rhys took him under his wing as his only living relative, and since he had done his best to teach the lad everything necessary to become a highland warrior, but the trouble with youth was naivete and Rhys knew that Will still had quite a lot to learn before he would ever step into the fullness of capability – and that was a fear he often kept silent though as of late had begun to question.
“If you hurry after your commission is pure good." Go on, rush off through my wisest moment. It has already been disturbed. Let’s go see this lassie now, eh?” Rhys asked, following after William with a chuckle. William glanced over his shoulder and sighed.
“She is a fair thing to see, but something seems strange about her. The chief seems adamant she needs to be returned but I do not think she wants that.” William stated as the two of them crested the top of the hillside. Rhys’ eyes slithered across the landscape and came to rest on the encampment. They strode at a quick gait and within moments came into the camp that still seemed near lifeless from the briskness of the morning – as if everyone had gone into a deep slumber to avoid the cold.
“Pray, tell, what makes you think she is strange? Or is it just your lack of experience with women? If she is something worth beholding maybe that is what’s strange to you – the stirrings of your red-blooded manhood!” Rhys smirked as he leaned forward and patted his young cousin on the back. As humorous as Rhys found it, the expression on William’s face was anything but amused but this only added to Rhys’ chuckling as they approached the Chief’s tent. William gave a light sigh and shook his head.
“Ah think this is where we should part ways ‘til after.” He muttered. Rhys perked a brow and tilted his head.
“Ah, did ah hurt your wee? A very well playful jest is good now and again." Rhys mumbled. He gave a light shrug and brought his hand up toward his chin as he scratched at the bottom of it and with a slight cock of the eyebrow he chuckled as his arm fell back to his side, “If she enchants me, ye will be to blame.” William smirked and folded his arms over his chest with a light nod.
“Ah, and the jest is on you now – if she bewitches you do not say I did not give you a good warning. Maybe it’s you what is truly frightful to catch up with a lassie capable of besting you at wits!” He turned with a chuckle and began sauntering off into the mist. Rhys snorted and tilted his head as he turned to lift the flap and entered the Chief’s tent with a heart full of loyalty and a mind filled with questions.
The fluttering sound of the wind against the tent flap brought Ailith’s twinkling green eyes from the ground toward the entrance – a flash of white light filling the interior as the shadow of a man stepped within. As the flap fell back into place, Ailith watched the figure step into the faint candlelight. He quickly lowered to his knee, head falling forward as he bowed down before the Laird of his Clan; Lauchlan MacKinnon.
“Rise up, Rhys and listen to me.” Lauchlan murmured.
“Aye, milord.” The man muttered, his voice heavy and deep as he glanced toward her. With the light flashing over his face, Ailith was able to see that his man was very appeasing to the eye and she wondered what his station within the clan was, and what it might mean for her.
“Ye see this,” Lauchlan muttered, waving his hand in Ailith’s direction, “This lassie claims to be lost from Clan Brodie. We found her just this morning snooping about this morning wanting you to take her back to her territory. I have no use for her or need for the further burden of a lass at camp. It will not hurl tensions for what's already a delicate army." The chief explained. Ailith perked up slightly and began to shake her head. Her heart instantly began beating wildly within her chest and she couldn’t help but protest. She couldn’t back to Brodie – she just couldn’t!
“Surely you lot will not send me back to Brodie! The castle was burnt to ash! I have no clan to return to! Will you not grant me refuge? I am a Scotsman, no doubt!” she blurted. Already she could feel the sensation of her skin growing warmer, a sure sign that her temper was soon to flare. Here she had traveled so far, it surprised her she had even made as far as MacKinnon territory, but the colors around her made it clear with no doubt that was where she had landed. The man who had come in, glanced at her and pursed his lips as a light chuckle slipped him.
“Ah, your fire already shows itself, lassie. Have you a name?” he asked. Ailith stared directly back at him, the defiant spirit within her pacing back in forth like an encaged beast waiting for the moment of perfect opportunity.
“Have you one?” she fired back, “Or will it amount to being milord, as so many warriors demand?” she pushed back, her tone haughty and challenging just as she had willed it to be. She had dealt with many a Scotsman and knew that her obedience would be expected but just as her castle had been burnt to the ground – her home completely destroyed, fire was a thing Ailith both feared and respected and the fire in her blood would sear anything or anyone who dared inch within the target range of her tongue’s piercing darts; a weapon she had long ago forged within her just as the smithy might forge a sword.
“Ah, but the chief has made his command, lassie. Ah, have no choice but to return you to the stead where you belong. This cannot be done to your liking or by a forceful hand – what would you will it be?” Rhys queried.
Ailith groaned, she could not believe what she was hearing. Never in her life had she imagined that her own countrymen would turn her out and refuse to refuge. She couldn’t see her own clan ever doing the same thing if a maid from Clan MacKinnon happened to find herself lost in Brodie. And yet, that was what was happening as she stared back in disbelief at the Laird of the Clan and what she now presumed to be one of his chieftains. Surely, he had to be considering the way he was now speaking to her, but she dare not speak up on this.
“I am called Ailith.” She murmured lowly, “And I bolted here with hope for help from your clan, but I can see that is not meant to be; how come none of you can be relied on, nor will you grant me refuge? How come I must be returned to Brodie?” she questioned.
“Because I am not having the burden of your care falling upon me. If I send you one of my best you can be assured you will be returned safely to your stead. It’s for your safety that I will have him deliver you over the highlands. You would think a bit of gratitude would be shared, but a haughty wench is all we can see. It would do your best to curb your lashing tongue.” Chief Lauchlan stated with a stern tone.
Ailith’s eyes dashed to the ground again and she drew her lip between her teeth, biting into it as she tried her best to mind her lips. Considering her predicament, Ailith made a decision then and there – when the first opportunity arose she would find her way from this chieftain, this brute who seemed intent on dragging her back to the gates of hell whose name she only knew once his Laird again murmured it,
“No, Rhys, you will take her to Brodie and return to us once the thing has been done purely, and good.” Lauchlan finished. Ailith lifted her head slightly and shot a look directly at Rhys. Surprisingly, deep blue eyes pierced her own bright green ones as Rhys’ gaze locked with hers. An unsettling pang hit her chest and Ailith quickly glanced away, feeling as if her very soul had been violated by the intensity of his prying eyes. How dare he look at her in such a way? As if he were searching deeply into the depths of who she was – intent on finding the very thing she couldn’t allow anyone to find. She wouldn’t – her very life depended on maintaining her secret – and no matter the cost, Ailith would.
“This is a right outrage! Ah have told you my home was burnt to a crisp but none of you will listen! Where am I going to go when I get back to Clan Brodie? Ailith wailed. Lauchlan groaned and waved in her direction as he looked back to Rhys.
"The sooner folks gather, the better. Gag her for now." Lauchlan murmured. Two younger guards approached and Ailith’s eyes widened in shock as they reached for her arms.
“Clan MacKinnon stowed out of rats! Ye wouldn’t piss on another countryman to put him out if he were aflame!” she hissed, eyes filling with tears as a bit of cloth was shoved between her lips. Indeed, the moment she got a chance she’d be free of these bastards – the very first free moment that arose.
“I will go now, thank you, milord,” Rhys muttered, glancing back toward Ailith one more time as he began sauntering toward the tent flap. The same light which had shrouded him before hit her eyes and Ailith lowered her head in disbelief. As if what she had fled from had not been enough, now she would be embarking on a venture with a man she could tell was not to be trifled with, and yet had been tasked with the obligation of protecting her. Fearful, and uncertain Ailith clutched her eyes closed as the guards began dragging her toward the back of the chief’s tent. They tossed her onto a heap of straw in a corner and chuckled as she hit it – golden strands flying in all directions.
"The chief told you, you would be best curbing your tongue, wench. I suppose I have no other choice, but to sit here and hold your horses out." No bullshitting, soon enough you will be back in your own territory dealing with your own scruff." A pity, pure, sic a beauty. Could have been a lot of fun for us men." One guard muttered as he spat to the side of her face. Ailith leaned away from it and inhaled deeply. With her mouth gagged as it were, she couldn’t say what she wanted most, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t stare at them with the same hatred her lips were unable to utter.
After what seemed like a few hours, Ailith finally drifted off into sleep from the boredom of being left in a heap. She could hear the men making jokes and talking but their speech had long begun to overlap into what seemed like murmurs that she could no longer decipher. This alone made it easy to fall into a light sleep. Feeling something kicking at her foot, Ailith cracked open an eye and glanced upward. As her vision steadied she noticed that the face of two men were above her – one gruff, with a full beard and the other, a younger man who didn’t even look like he was much beyond lad-hood. Since she was gagged, there was still no way for her to say anything but she quickly recognized the older man as being the chieftain in charge of her delivery.
“Ailith?” he asked. She lifted her eyes to meet with his and shifted to sit up. The man leaned down and reached for the gag, untying it and pulling it from her lips. The relief it brought was minute, however, as Ailith could feel the soreness in her jaws from having been kept in an awkward position so long. She wondered, suddenly, how long it had been since he had gone to ready things and if it was now time for them to go. She opened her mouth to extend her jaw slightly and closed it again, lifting her hand to gently massage at the side of her face.
“Aye.” She murmured.
“Stand up.” Rhys remarked, “We will be accompanied by this laddie; William, he is my cousin. I wanted to properly introduce you as I would like this to be as easy a passage for you as for myself. Aye?" He explained. Ailith scoffed. She did not believe a word he said and, in her mind, if he truly wanted to assist her he would have offered to lend an ear to hear her story. Strangely, it was almost as if none of Clan MacKinnon believed her, but she also couldn’t tell them everything making the situation wholly complicated. Standing up, Ailith peered back at the boy and gave a nod. Being obedient for the moment seemed the wisest thing to do.
“Aye, sure am pleased to catch up with you.” She muttered plainly. Admittedly, keeping up pretenses was a bit challenging as Ailith tried her best to keep her speech simple-sounding as a meager country maid might speak. This was no easy feat, which made the gag she just had removed seem like a blessing in crafty disguise, “I do not think my comfort nor the journey will be at ease. The Highlands are right dangerous stead these days. “She finished. Rhys perked a brow as he glanced back at her. Again, that strange penetrating gaze seemed to reach for the inner truth she dare not confess. How did he do it? How could a simple look cause her to feel so revealed?
It was as if the shroud of dishonesty was being torn from her without him even touching her. It made her utterly uncomfortable and she could scarcely stand the burden of it. Worse yet, was that she had no other choice. If she wasn’t careful the chieftain would grow suspicious and she could already tell from his demeanor that he was not one to trifle with. Odd as it was, something about him seemed proud, virile, and wolfish – traits Ailith knew well enough that she dare not challenge them. Not for fear of her own shortcoming but rather for fear of being found out for what she truly was.
“How far is it that you came to MacKinnon territory? Is not Brodie territory a long distance from us? Is not it east of the Hebrides?” William asked as he looked back at her. Ailith pursed her lips and gave a shrug.
“It is a distance. How far do you think I cared about the dangers of the highlands? Didn't you think I have seen my share of battle and bloodshed in so many days’ travel?” Ailith asked – avoiding his questions with the wit she dare not admit she possessed. In her experience, Ailith had long ago learned how much easier it was to best someone who completely underestimated her. In fact, she found it utterly appeasing whenever she did best someone using her pure wit. Rhys tilted his head with a chuckle and nodded.
“William, take your leave now. Ah, have a need to speak with the lassie alone.” He murmured. Lilith’s heart quickened, her breath turning noticeably jagged as she listened to him speak. Alone? What could he possibly hope to do to her alone, and what would the repercussions of such a thing entail? Lilith knew that many girls were being raped in the countryside, but if this vile man thought she would allow him to touch her – she was sure to tear his balls right from his body. William glanced at her once more and gave a nod. Ailith sucked in a deep breath as she watched him disappear and then, turning her gaze back toward Rhys she straightened her spine and gulped. He tilted his head, drawing his hand back toward his face as he once again began scratching at his chin – as if in deep thought. Ailith perked a brow and pursed her lips.
“Well, are you just going to gawk as if you saw a spirit or have you something to say?” she murmured, her tone dripping with potent venom – yet another tactical way to challenge a man and one she had also mastered long ago. Rhys’ lips twitched slightly, curving into a smirk as he looked back at her. He nodded and pointed toward her dress.
“I can tell you are frightened of me, lassie. You reek of it – ‘and the way you been idling along, you got a lot to catch up with. Tis no different than the kill of my prey on the hunt or even the jimmy of a boot to winch the metal of my blade. You must know a muckle bloodshed as you claim to have seen – I have seen muckle more and more than once have been the cause of it. No, you will not need to worry about my touching your creamy flesh in violation But, I will ensure to keep you safe and under my mark for the duration of our travels." No, turn around and spread out your arms, lifting them over your dress and stand still.” He instructed.
Ailith’s eyes widened as her mouth fell agape, “You cannot be serious! I will not!” she gasped, “Will you not grant me some privacy?” she asked. Such a request was beyond her understanding. It made little sense,
“You only wish to mock and ridicule me! No, I shall not!” she stated, crossing her arms defiantly across her ample chest.
Rhys chuckled, “Ah, a virgin indeed.” He chuckled and nodded again, “Good enough, come then – let us go.” Rhys stated.
Ailith could scarcely believe her ears but she realized quickly that knowing such intimate details about her was likely the easiest way for him to gauge her need for protection. After all, he could have easily pushed the issue with very little physical exertion. In fact, Ailith was positive that one of his arms could easily break her in half simply by hoisting her over his shoulder and applying just a bit of pressure. Stunned, she blinked where she stood in place and as Rhys glanced back at her she quickly inhaled a jagged breath and began walking toward him.
“Aye, since nobody will listen to my story I suppose I have no other choice.” She mumbled. Rhys stepped out of the tent and Ailith followed out into the light of day, her eyes rising to meet with the sky as she weighed her surroundings. It had been so early when she had first been found that light had yet to grace the hillside. The same fog that had filled the early morning still seemed to linger like a thick cloud just above their heads. She glanced around the tent and spotted William standing in wait for the two of them quickly. Rhys looked back at her, tossing a dark cloak toward her with a nod.
“Put that on and keep your head covered. It will be muckle easier if nobody suspects you are a lassie.” He stated matter-of-factly. Pursing her lips, she slipped the cloak over her body and lifted the hood over her head, tucking her red locks deep into it as she tied it about her chin.
“Is that good enough?” she asked lowly. Rhys nodded.
“Aye, ta.” He murmured, “No, I have another question. Will ye wander off on your own or will I be needing to bind you to keep you in place? It’s best if you are just honest for if you dare to disobey me the consequences will be most dire and you will surely find yourself within bonds in utmost haste.” He finished. Ever so confused, Ailith perked a brow and began following after him as he had bid her do. Everything about her treatment surprised her, and that seemed to be the most challenging aspect of things.
“You are a very strange sort. Ah, cannot say I have ever met anybody like you afore.” Ailith mumbled lowly.
“I am doing what I have been set forth to do." If you ask me, the strange one is she who has come traipsing over the Highlands to a land so far from her own…it begs the question of your honesty. But, that is not my stead to weigh on nor my duty to see to, now, is it?” Rhys asked. Ailith pursed her lips and glanced downward with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Perhaps not, yet here you are asking.” She stated with a sour face, “Begs the question of if ye can mind your own affairs or not. If ye ask me.” She finished. Rhys continued walking as if completely unmoved by her words leaving Ailith unsure what to think of him. What she did know though, was Rhys of MacKinnon was proving himself to be equally mysterious and certainly rousing many of her unspoken curiosities.
Rhys’ eyes flickered out across the countryside – nightfall was approaching fast and the howling wind of a tempest swiftly approaching now beat against his face as he peered over the landscape. The grey fog that had rested sleepily for the duration of the day had seemingly not moved at all and still rested lazily just above their heads. The briskness of the air felt sharper, cooler, and he recognized that the need for making camp was high upon them.
“Stop and enjoy the clouds. There is a storm coming in. I can feel it in my bones. We will make camp here for the night.” He ordered. William stepped up beside him, his own eyes sliding out over the terrain as he sighed lowly.
“Aye, the wind feels as if it might blow my scowl right off my face. There is a frightful howl in my lungs. Shall we gather up wood for the fire?” William asked in a low tone. Rhys pursed his lips and looked back at Ailith who held her gaze lowly, and remained silent as her green eyes flashed between the two.
“Are you hungry, lassie?” Rhys asked as he glanced back at her. Ailith shrugged lightly.
“Ah could eat.” She mumbled.
"You hold your horses there and William and I will fetch us something to eat. Can you be trusted not to bolt? The gag my chief gave you can easily be replaced and with-it bindings for your delicate wrists to.” He stated matter-of-factly. Ailith pursed her lips and nodded.
“Ah have nowhere else to go. Where would you be in a storm, no less?” Ailith asked him. Rhys chuckled slightly and shook his head. If this lass truly thought he would be so easily convinced she had to be a fool. Rhys was not so ignorant or foolish as to trust anyone at first chance. If anything, asking her was yet another strategy to uncover the truth he was convinced she was keeping from him. It surprised him to no end that Chief Lauchlan had chosen not to listen to the girl’s story about Brodie, but that did not mean that Rhys was had overlooked this detail. If Castle Brodie had indeed been burnt to the ground how come none of the other clans had spoken of it yet? How come it was only now that someone was even speaking about it?
“Ah think I will hold my horses ‘til the lad comes back with the wood. Pray, tell, your story – Castle Brodie burnt to the ground? What was your station in your clan?” Rhys asked. Ailith scoffed and deliberately glanced away from him. She shook her head and let out a loud sigh.
“Ah think I was right about you needing to be minding your own affairs" Pray tell, how come you are so curious when clearly your clan lord held no concern for even hearing it?” Ailith stated. Rhys gave a shrug.
“I would not expect a lassie to know how for warriors behave nor the functions of politics in our land, but if you are of Clan Brodie you must know the chief is our leader but I too have clout in the things to decide made for my clan.” He explained. Ailith shrugged.
“Ah cannot say this matters to me for your things to decide to hold no merit in keeping me from being returned to my singed homeland. I do not want to gang back but that will not change your mind, will it?” she asked. Rhys chuckled and tilted his head.
“I, a merely abiding duty, lassie. I have fought many battles in my time and I have witnessed many things. Certainly, you realize that minding my own affairs is exactly what I am doing. Mind you, you traipsed here to our territory and it was you who asked for refuge with us. How come then, do you protest and yet argue when I ask to hear the story you say you that you, my lord - would not? How come, then; does your tongue lash out with the sick need to cut me when my sworn vow is to protect you? How come then, do you not want to go home?” Rhys asked. Ailith sighed, her eyes darting away from his. Rhys peered past her and in the distance, he could see the faint outline of his young cousin as he strode toward them.
“I see, it is hard to tell." You are merely a chieftain and as you said, your duty is to deliver me to my homeland. Refuge no longer matters and for that reason, my story does not either.” Ailith stated. Rhys pursed his lips and gave a nod.
“Ah see – will, chieftain or not – I am in control of your fate and you would be best to mind your insults. Ah can be kind or I can be pure nasty. It’s up to you which coupon you will see for day to day.” He silenced. This lassie, full of fire and vinegar, would learn – one way or another, Rhys would see to that.
About the author
A multi-genre author, poet, creative&creator. Resident of Oregon; where the flora, fauna, action & adventure that bred the Pioneer Spirit inspire, "Tantalizing, titillating and temptingly twisted" tales.