Battle cries and the clash of swords on armour resounded through the bailey. A burst of nerves surged through her. Catriona peered out of the window of the round castle and her stomach roiled. For three days, they’d kept the Norsemen at bay with boiling resin and molten lead but their efforts were for nothing. With strong shields, the invaders protected themselves and hacked away at the new ramparts.
“They will break through at any moment,” Catriona whispered to herself.
Her father had only begun erecting the keep some fifteen summers past a while after he took the isle from the Norse. But now they were back at the walls, determined to take back the land for themselves.
Swiping clammy hands over her skirts, she inhaled slowly. Bute Keep would fall to the Norse soon enough and there would be little hope for her—a mere woman.
A chunk of stone pinged through the open window as an arrow struck not far from her viewing point. She darted inside and scanned her sister’s chambers, nose wrinkled. The smell of death clung to the air, even though it had been four sennights since she had passed. Catriona pressed her lips together. While her sister had never been kind, Catriona would not wish the ravages of dysentery on anyone. It was a strange sight—her twin wasting away, devoured by sickness. She wrapped her arms about herself. Mayhap it was better Katelyn had died. Should the Norse have got their hands on her, she knew not what they would have done.
A shiver tripped down her spine.
She would fare just as badly.
She needed to escape. But how? The keep was surrounded, the fighting fierce. She risked death by stepping outside the upper chambers. Her father had told her to remain inside. Catriona swallowed the knot in her throat. She’d heard enough tales of Norse barbarity. Rapes, pillaging. Was this what they were to expect? Would she die this day?
With a final glance around the room, she made her decision. She would not die here, cowering and quivering, with the acrid scent of death in her nostrils as night fell around them. Hurrying to the door, she twisted the handle, grimacing as the iron squeaked. She peered through the small gap. A whistle of air. The sounds of dying men and crumbling masonry. But no enemy.
Skirts in hand, she scurried along the corridor and followed the spiral steps down to the hall. No one paid any heed to her but Catriona saw everything she needed to. The men-at-arms had retreated into the castle and were busy shoring up the defences of the hall. Laird Malcolm, her father, directed the men to place strong wooden beams across the entrance.
Catriona shook her head. For all the good it would do them. Those doors were not strong enough to hold back a horde of Norsemen—or Vikings as the men referred to them. Slippers crunching across the rushes, she made her way to the kitchen stairs and descended. A few men and women cowered behind the large oak table.
“Lady Catriona,” the cook hissed, standing and weighing a cooking knife in his hand. “Come, lass, and hide.”
“Nay, I’ll no’ stay here. The enemy will break through at any moment.”
The big ruddy man snorted. “And where shall ye go, wee Catriona? Ye’ll no’ survive out there.” He motioned with his knife out of the small rear door.
“I’ll seek shelter with the villagers.”
“If ye can even reach them. Ye’ll be spotted by a Viking for sure. Dinnae be foolish. A lass like ye is a fine prize for a lusty Viking.”
She stiffened at this, aware her looks had brought her much unwanted attention over the years. Since she had come of age many men had tried to sway her into bed. While her sister relished the attention, she did not. She would not give herself up so readily to a Norseman.
“Pray come with me,” she implored as crashing sounded above and several women released sounds of distress.
“Nay. ‘Tis guaranteed death to go out there. Here, we stand a chance.”
Catriona suppressed a frustrated curse. Did they not see it was better to at least try? Mayhap they would be well, she told herself as she spun away.
“Good luck to ye, lass,” Cook murmured behind her.
Pressing through the door, she blew out a heavy breath. She refused to cower and await death. The men-at-arms had been talking of what might happen should the Norse break through—some of them cruelly teasing her with tales. A few whom she had declined took particular delight in describing how a Viking planned to take his pleasure with her.
Catriona closed the door and flattened her back against it, willing her imaginings away. Hopefully the servants would remain unharmed but a lass like herself… she'd had troubles enough over her years. She would not stay to discover if the tales were true.
Her father would be furious to find her gone, but she cared little what he thought. He only wanted her to continue their ruse. The household knew of their plan and she had been playing at being Lady Katelyn for any visitors to Bute since her sister’s death, while they waited for word from Katelyn’s betrothed. Until the Norse landed on their shores, that was.