The Highlander's Secret

The Highlander's Secret

Jennifer Siddoway

Chapter One

Firth of Moray, 923 AD

Eamon Gordon tightened his grip around the bridle of his horse as he rode along the hills of northern Scotland toward an ominous cloud of smoke. An amber haze became more visible on the horizon as they journeyed onward. His saddle jostled against the animal as the terrain became more rugged near the coast. Despite the growing discomfort of his ride, Eamon clicked his tongue to urge the horse forward so he could see above the cresting hills.

The thunder of hooves beat against the rocky landscape as the other men rode up behind him. He was just one of many from clan Gordon who gathered steel and mounted a horse to join them for the cause. His brother Keenan heard news of the smoke around midday and rallied their forces to travel north towards the shore and go investigate. As their chieftain, it was Keenan’s duty to protect their borders from foreign invaders, and with signs of struggle growing ever-closer, it seemed as if their days of peace were numbered.

To the best of their knowledge, the north was an uninhabited region, without a town or settlement to speak of, yet something had been destroyed – smoke did not rise from the earth unbidden. Someone had been there and left their curse upon the land.

There had been attacks like this before, the purges of monasteries and vicious slaughter of their people. Holy men, who carried no weapons to defend themselves, butchered in places of worship. Viking long ships would come ashore, bringing bloodthirsty Norsemen and their weapons, seeking gold. They raided everything their ships came upon, like ravenous wolves unable to slake their appetite. Everyone knew that Viking men were not warriors. They were demons sent from hell to destroy everything good and beautiful. The smoke and ash rising in the air above the smoldering wreckage was testament to their barbarism – no one else could have done this.

When they grew closer, he saw buildings and farmland set ablaze, leaving nothing to be rebuilt. Everything that remained was black and charred for as far as the eye could see, leading up to the rocky shoreline. Eamon and the others paused at the crest of the hill, resting to survey the damage in horrorstruck silence.

It was worse than they could have possibly expected.

Whoever had done this was long gone, leaving only a swath of destruction in their wake, barely anything was not smashed or burned. All they left behind was an eerie quiet, broken only by the crackling of small fires and scavenging beasts. There was no screaming, no clash of metal, nor sound of battle of any kind. If there were survivors, surely there would have been some sign of a struggle.

So much death, Eamon thought to himself. Will the conflict never end?

Seven villages had been pillaged in the last year. Leaders were losing spirit and the women and children were frightened. The Northern invaders had become the region’s greatest threat. The clans, now more than ever, had to join forces and push back. They would not survive without each other.

He looked to his brother Keenan, chieftain of Clan Gordon, and waited for his order. The chieftain’s face was stained with tracks of sweat and dirt from their ride, but his expression was passive. His eyes squinted in the sunlight, crinkling into crow’s feet around the edges. He’d seen many battles throughout his life and recognized the signs; this was an annihilation.

In one swift motion Keenan cracked the reins and galloped down the hills toward the wreckage. “Yah!”

The warriors followed, riding down to the curious remnants of a port village leveled to the Earth in burning cinders—a village no one had even known existed. Buildings still in the middle of construction had been obliterated along with the inhabitants. It was still not clear what had happened, except that a village was being established and was cut down before anyone else had learned of it. The structures were all in place and it would have been a valuable asset to have friendly access to the sea. If Keenan had known a new Highland settlement was under threat, Clan Gordon would have come to their aid.

Not that any of that mattered.

The smell of death was everywhere. The flayed remains of the village inhabitants scattered on the ground, soaking the earth with crimson blood. By the looks of things, six or seven families had been butchered. All along the beach patches of red were being washed away with the tide.

Overhead the eerie sound of seagulls drifted across the waves before they landed on the shore.

“Check fer survivors,” Keenan commanded. “There may yet be a soul we can attend. Yet keep a wary eye. We cannae be sure the Northern invaders dinnae leave a trap.”

Following his laird’s orders, Eamon dismounted and drew the top fold of his plaid to hold over his nose. The wool didn’t do much for the smell, but helped a bit for the thick ash and smoke still hanging in the air.

“Keenan, I’m afraid we’re too late,” he muttered dismally. “There are none left.”

“Aye, those bastards slaughtered them like cattle.” The chieftain scowled, casting his eyes across the scene. It was a fair assessment of the travesty, but Eamon could tell his brother was not ready to give up on their search just yet. He, too, was unwilling to leave without making a valiant effort. “Keep searching, lads. If we find even one, our cause is worthwhile. Dinnae let yerselves lose heart.”

The warriors bowed, taking the declaration as dismissal and went to search the ransacked cottages. “Aye, Laird Gordon.”

Eamon’s brother in-law, Bruce, walked towards them. “What do ye think happened here?”

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