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.
Breath held, the clatter of swords and footsteps grew close. The stickiness on her palms increased and she smoothed them over her gown. Her chest constricted. Someone approached down the narrow corridor leading out of the kitchen and to the rear of the keep. Her escape was blocked.
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry. Shouts sent a shiver through her, the fear clawing up her throat making it almost impossible to breathe. Shadows slithered across the walls, distorted by the few lit torches. How had the Norsemen found the secret passage? Should she go back into the kitchen? Nay, if she did, she would lead them directly to the rest of the household. Her only choice was to confront the invaders.
Trembling, she edged away from the door and followed the curve of the passageway. It seemed to Catriona that a wild, brawling mass of limbs and armour had plunged into the small space. She no longer had trouble breathing but her body failed her—left her frozen. She stood as still as prey beneath a hawk while the stench of sweat and blood assaulted her.
His foreign appearance, the long hair and unusual clothing startled her and a hand clenched around her arm, snapping her out of her daze. A squeak escaped her, a noise that should have been a scream should her throat have cooperated. Body shaking, she dragged her gaze fearfully up to meet the cold blue of the Norseman’s eyes. Was it horror playing with her mind or was he truly the size of a giant?
He thrust her against the wall, causing her head to crack against the stone while he muttered something in his foreign tongue. Catriona noted the blood on his hands had transferred to her gown. The blood of the soldiers of Bute. How bad had the slaughter been?
His blood slickened hand travelled up to her face to curl around her cheek. A cry threatened to spill from her mouth but she held it at bay. She failed to supress her shudder as his rancid breath washed over her. Reluctantly, she dragged her gaze to his. Mayhap if she begged…? But, nay, the frigidness still lingered in his eyes. She only hoped he ravished her and left her be. She steeled her resolve. The sea of nausea in her stomach ebbed.
“Do what ye will,” she whispered, closing her eyes.