Murdoc rode alongside me, whistling his usual, cheery tune. This raid would be small, nearby the Brotherhood lands. We needed something easy to begin our season of pillaging. I always felt nervous before a raid, even more so after Agnar’s obvious threat. My mind sought solutions that were nowhere to be found.
“We better be makin’ a bet again this year, lad.” Murdoc said. He peeked at me without turning his head. I smirked. His dark brown hair, woven with strands of silver, fluttered in the icy breeze.
“Aye, what do ye wish to wager?”
He thought a moment as the snow drifted lazily to the ground below. The trail was frozen and treacherous this far north. Trees snapped and cracked in the distance, exploding from the ice.
“I’ll wager ye a handful o’ silver,” he said, smiling lopsidedly, his mouth nearly hidden by his thick, dark beard. I snorted.
“Alright, agreed. What will we bet on?” I asked.
“Hmm,” he thought aloud. Rollo rode quietly behind us, listening intently, forbidden from his brother to gamble. Of all things Agnar could be worried about, he chose to focus on harmless bets.
“I’ll say Rollo comes up wi’ even less than last year.” Murdoc chuckled.
“Agreed!” I laughed as Rollo complained behind us. I was thankful for the distraction my friends gave me. I knew it wouldn’t last for long.
We waited until night fell, concealed by the cover of darkness and the thick tree line. This village was small, though not the smallest we’d raided before. Twenty men lay flat on their stomachs in a line, forbidden from moving until Agnar gave the command. The cold seeped into my soul. Agnar had handpicked the men to bring with him on this raid; most were yet untried, young and afraid. I suppose that’s why he needed myself, Murdoc and Rollo. Our next raids would be massive, likely consisting of five hundred or so. I hated the chaos those brought with.
There was no movement in the village, only a few torches lighting up the darkness. I reached for my dagger, becoming anxious for a good fight. As much as I disagreed with the majority of what our Brotherhood did, I was more than willing to defend myself. My reasons stood clearly in my mind, the only thing now that could spur me to commit the atrocities about to commence. My heart thudded slowly, ready.
Agnar gave the signal.
In a flurry of snow and dirt, we hurled down the hill from the trees, most of the men shrieking. They enjoyed driving fear into the hearts of those we stole from. Murdoc flanked my left, still quick in his old age. My dagger in one hand, I pulled my broadsword from my sheath with the other, coming upon the largest cottage in the village. It was always our plan, Murdoc and I; to pillage the largest home, stealing enough while the others focused on killing and raping. By the time we were done, they’d come searching and still find enough to be satisfied. It worked every time.
Screams and wails met my ears, coming from the cottages behind us. I willed myself to not lose focus. I kicked the flimsy, slatted wood door open and pushed my way inside, met with no resistance. Murdoc closed the door behind us, standing as guard. A fire roared in the hearth, the man of the house sheltering his wife and two young children with nothing but his arms. The mother held her children close, one girl and one boy. They stared with wide eyes. Tears stained the woman’s cheeks.
“Pl-please, leave my family be,” the man said, visibly trembling. Part of me was disgusted at his weakness. What kind of father and husband was this man if he couldn’t even defend his family?
“We’ll no hurt ye, just give us yer silver or gold and we’ll leave ye in peace,” I said, pointing my dagger at him. His ashen face changed from fear to confusion in an instant. I became agitated.
“I’ll no say it again,” I threatened, taking a step closer.
“Mama,” the littler girl whispered, staring up at me. Her white, lacy bonnet was left askew atop her little head.
“Shh,” her mother hissed, pulling her closer. Without peeling my eyes away from the child, I shook my dagger in the direction of the man.
“Go.” I commanded. The screams were getting louder as the Brotherhood made their way through the town. I heard the man stumble away, knocking into the chairs as he went. I bent, laying my dagger and sword on the wood floor. Their eyes watched my every move, like wounded animals waiting for the slaughter. I stood and made my way to them, bending again until I was crouched in front of them. The woman shook, pulling her children ever closer.
“It’s alright,” I whispered, winking. The little girl looked from me to her mother. The little boy could only stare in his fright. I pulled two small rubies from my pocket, opening my hand and presenting them to the children. They glimmered in the firelight. The mother’s eyes widened even further.
“Here,” I encouraged, smiling. The little girl, braver than her brother, reached out first and plucked a ruby from my palm. She held it close to her green eyes, cradling it in both her chubby little hands. A ruby’s worth far outweighed any silver her father would give us. It had been my inheritance from my loathsome father. I had enough jewels to rival that of Mount Tier.
The little boy reached quickly and grabbed his, pinching it between his fingers. The father returned, gasping as his eyes fell upon the proximity to his family with which I was crouched.
“Give it to him.” I said. Murdoc opened his bag, shaking it.
“We’ll tell everyone else we’ve already taken all your silver,” I said, standing to face the man. He stared, sputtering. “Best learn to wield a sword and protect yer family. There aren’t many men like me.”
We left the cottage, the wailing beginning to fade as the raid drew to an end as quickly as it had begun. My eyes fell upon Rollo, his face smeared with blood. His entire frame quaked. My brow furrowed, following his line of sight.
The last of the screams came from the young woman Agnar was claiming before our very eyes. My hands shook with pure rage. I turned away, my muscles straining. Murdoc caught my shoulder, holding me steady.
“Calm, lad. Think of her mother, her siblings.”
My resolve melted as I pictured their faces, so incredibly euphoric every time I brought them gold or silver that meant they could survive a little longer. They knew not of how I acquired it. If I failed them—if they died, it would be my fault. I’d already buried the woman I’d loved; I couldn’t bury her family, too. I felt hopeless, as though there was a darkness within me that could never be brought back to light again.
“Kill-i-an!” Agnar’s voice bellowed from his hut as I attempted to slink by unnoticed. I could tell he was enraged. I squared my shoulders as I entered, my eyes immediately falling upon his latest conquest. She lay on the bed, battered and bruised, moaning in her sleep.
“Yes?” I asked through gritted teeth, unable to calm myself. Agnar shook with unspent rage.
“I thought our little chat the other day would have spurred ye into action.” He growled. I shrugged.
“All I came across were children.” I defended.
“Oh, is that so?” He asked, his fists balled. I crossed my arms, waiting for his demands.
“Ye must have no looked very hard, then, considering there were at least five women,” he said, shifting closer to me.
“None appealed to me.” I glared back.
“Ye mean there were no blond whores that tickled yer fancy?” He quirked an eyebrow. I felt the blood drain from my face, felt the air rush from my lungs. He knew.
“I’ll make ye a deal, since I like to think of myself as a fair man,” he began, reaching for his mug.
“Next raid will be a big one, to a village we’ve no been before. Ye must claim a woman, or I’ll root out this little family yer supportin’, and kill every last one of them. Unless, that is, one of them appeals to me,” he said, tilting his ale to gulp down an unhealthy amount. My heart pounded like thunder in my ears. How did he know? I turned and left without another word.
I whistled a high, keening note, before it dropped. I repeated it twice, standing at the edge of the trees. The woman straightened, wiping her hands on her apron, pushing a few loose strands of silvery blond hair from her eyes. She was flushed from the cold and the exertion of splitting firewood. If it weren’t for her greying hair, I’d have mistaken her for…well, her.
Smoke rose from the chimney of their large stone cottage, sheltered in the trees. I knew it was a risk to come here after Agnar’s threat, but their needs outweighed everything else. I emerged, her face lighting considerably as she saw me.
“Killian!” She called. I plowed ahead through the deep snow, closing the distance between us in a few strides. It had been nearly three months since my last visit. She threw her arms around my neck.
“Oh, it’s so good to see ye!” She pulled away, beaming at me, her eyes as brown as her daughter’s.
“Aye, I told ye I’d take care of you all.” I said.
“Killian, ye know we don’t want that pressure on yer shoulders—” she began, but I shook my head to cut her off.
“It’s the least I can do.” I said. She bobbed her head, overcome with emotion.
“Aye, I know Maeve would appreciate knowin’ yer takin’ care of her family,” she smiled, wiping her reddened nose on her sleeve. The sound of her name still sent a jolt of lightning through my veins.
“Come on in, see the children!” She beckoned me to the cottage, turning to trump through the snow and back to the shelter of their home. I scanned the tree line behind me, searching for any sign I’d been followed. Satisfied, I made my way into the warmth.
“Here ye are,” she placed a large bowl of stew before me, the smell causing my mouth to water immediately.
“It may not be quite ready yet, but ye can taste it and tell me if it’s alright.” She smiled kindly.
“Thank ye, Morna, ye know how I love yer food.” I winked. She blushed, swatting at me with a rag.
“Always were such a charmer.” She said.
“Mmm, here, before…” I trailed off, reaching for the bag of silver.
“Killian…” she said, almost disapprovingly. I could see in her eyes that she needed it, though. They would be able to survive the winter with this.
“Take it,” I encouraged, handing it to her. She weighed the hefty bag in her hand, her eyes widening.
“Killian! This is way too much—”
“No arguing.” I said with finality. “Use it to buy somethin’ for the children.” I suggested. Overcome with emotion, I thought she may cry once more.
“How will ye afford anythin’?” She asked, breathless.
“I had a good, busy summer.” I lied. “I’ll be just fine, even better if ye’d quit worryin’ about me,” I teased, nudging her.
She tucked the silver away as small footsteps thundered through the cottage.
“Killian!” Three little voices yelled. They flew around the corner, jumping into my arms, accosting me with three separate stories at the same time.
“Boys,” Morna warned, though they paid her no mind. She smiled as I tousled their blond hair and wrestled them, attempting to decipher what exactly they were trying to tell me. They ranged in ages from seven down to three. Morna had her hands fuller than full. I caught sight of a deep blue gown as the now-eldest daughter Meredith peeked around the corner. She would be fourteen now. I inclined my head to her. She’d always been painfully shy. My gut wrenched as I thought of Agnar claiming her if I didn’t do what he asked. My smile faded.
“Let the man eat, can’t ye see he needs some food?” Morna laughed. We sat and ate, peacefully as possible with three rambunctious boys. Meredith kept shooting me sly glances. Maeve had once told me she’d developed a crush on me. Maeve. It felt natural to think her name here, to say it, to keep her memory alive. Although it had been four and a half years, it still felt fresh, her death.
Our whirlwind romance had lasted two months before she caught the fever. I knew the first day I laid eyes on her that I’d marry her. Life is cruel, that way. Morna had never known how Maeve truly made her money to help support the family, how her and I met, how I’d planned to save her from her life of prostitution, to have her only to myself for eternity. I shook my head, scattering the memory of her away.
I said my goodbyes as night fell, promising to return mid-winter to check up on them. Their lives etched into my heart, I knew I’d have to comply with Agnar, or risk losing the memory of the woman I had loved.