Though it was but afternoon, darkness had descended over Scotland, thick and oppressive clouds roiling overhead like a seething cauldron. A storm was anticipating the opportunity to burst forth.

            An ill omen, it seemed to the man watching out the tower window. From the highest turret where he stood, he could gaze out upon the courtyard—brown, shriveled grass littered with dead leaves, the skeletal, sickly tree in the center—and out further, onto the barren heath that was his fiefdom, bleak and dreary this November day.

            He was a weathered-looking man in the autumn of his life—he had seen many winters, but judging from his bulky muscles and hardened face that recalled the permanence of stone, he would see many more.

            Cries from behind the man diverted his attention. He only glanced back over his shoulder out of habit, for the moans of pain coming from the adjacent room had been echoing for hours. In the antechamber where he waited, five others paced and sighed and gazed aimlessly out the windows: his sons. The eldest, a sturdy man of twenty-one years, sharpened his dagger on a stone as a means for passing the time. The youngest, a pugnacious boy of nine, glanced sidelong at his brothers for hints on how to behave. All were impatiently awaiting the arrival of their newest brother.

            The cries of childbirth had swelled and quieted in cycles, and at the moment all was silent.

            “My lord—her ladyship is dead.”

            The trembling white-faced midwife stood in the doorway.

            The man’s eyes darkened, shadows passing over his face wordlessly, though he did not fully comprehend her words. Ashen-faced, he slumped against the stone wall.

            “Thy child lives, my lord,” the midwife continued in a quavering voice. “You have been blest with a healthy daughter, sire.”

            A muscle in the thane’s jaw twitched. “A daughter?” he repeated in a low voice, not unlike the rumbling thunder outside. “A daughter?” His voice rose in disgust. “My wife has expired for the sake of bringing forth a worthless wench?

            Quivering, pleading, the midwife stammered, “She is thine own child, my lord, and she is very strong and beautiful.”

            A servant procured the infant—presumably there was a child beneath the mass of blankets in the crook of her arm.

            “What shall the child be called, my lord?”

            Breathing heavily, like an enraged beast, the thane answered, “Gruoch, like her mother. And I hope that she is silly and weak, just like her mother!”

            With that, the thane slammed the tower door behind him, descending without another glance at his newborn child.

            The servant and midwife looked at one another in foreboding—and then upon the innocent crying babe in their arms; pity and fear were evident in their eyes.

            “God help thee, little one,” the servant whispered. “God help thee.”

Chapter One

            A blinding summer’s day shone over Scotland. Five years had passed since the tempestuous birth of Kenneth IV’s only daughter, yet the castle looked very much the same as it had on that day, albeit calmer and brighter. The brooding stone fortress still overlooked endless, harsh grassland; as the field sloped downward, it hid a cluster of farms and thatch-roofed cottages.

            Sitting in a high tower window, looking out at the heath—marginally greener in the occasional rain spells—was the child, her fine flaxen hair being combed out by the very servant who had helped deliver her.

            Gruoch was a very pretty child, with fine flaxen hair, large teal eyes framed by thick lashes, rosy cheeks. Her features had the newness and innocence that comes from childhood; she was still vulnerable and impressionable. But her large eyes, swiveling slowly around the room, seemed to see everything—see, and understand—even things which a child should not, and laid everything she saw to her heart for future contemplation.

            “Sit still, my lady,” the servant chided, “you are skittish as a colt.”

            “Elsbeth, I want to go outside and play,” the girl said impatiently.

            Elsbeth pressed firmly on the child’s shoulder to make her still. “Thou must learn, Gruoch, that to be a lady means to abide by certain codes of conduct.”

            “I am not a lady.”

            “Thou art,” Elsbeth insisted patiently. “And someday thou shall marry a fine and handsome lord.”

             Gruoch tilted her head to the side. “Why, Elsbeth?”

            “Why what?”

            “Why shall I be married to a lord?”

            “Why, that is how you shall contribute to the order of things,” explained Elsbeth, taken slightly aback by the peculiar question. “You are born a lady; thus, God had decided thou shalt bear royal children, who shall in turn grow up to rule the kingdom. It is a noble position.”

            The little girl leaned out the window and watched two of her brothers out in the field, sparring with one another. Her eyes followed the grace of their movements, the power of their clanging blows, the swords glinting in the sun. It looked exhilarating.

           “Elsbeth, I want to learn how to fight with swords, like Aedus and Cahir,” she said eagerly, pointing at them. “I want to ride horses into battle like Kenneth,” she added, referring to her eldest brother. “I want to be thane when Father dies—I want to hear the cheers and the admiration of the people while I stand on the balcony and wave.”

            Elsbeth laughed and patted the girl’s hair. “What silly notions you have, child!”

            Hoof beats sounded on the heath—a cluster of horsemen rode towards the fortress.


            Elsbeth’s face paled a little. She placed a firm hand on Gruoch’s arm. “Stay here, child, until thy father sends for thee. His lordship will likely be tired from his long journey.”

            But Gruoch was wriggling in her seat with excitement. “Father, Father, Father!” she sang.

            “Gruoch, stay—no, do not go to him—Gruoch!”

            For the child had wormed her way out of Elsbeth’s grip and disappeared out the door. The nursemaid hitched up her skirts and ran after the little girl, calling to her as she went, but Gruoch was more agile than she.


            Kenneth laid his helmet down on the wooden table and sank into a chair.

            “How doth the battle, my lord?” one of the elder boys asked him cautiously.

            “A petty border skirmish,” Kenneth sighed, rubbing his temples wearily, “and one that, I fear, will never end. Thy brother is on his way from the north.”

            “Will not the king intervene?” another son inquired.

            “I hope things do not come to that,” Kenneth growled. With a sigh, he took a long draft of ale from a mug an attendant had brought him.

            “Father!” came a high-pitched squeal, and little Gruoch rushed into the room, a whirligig of energy. She made to throw her arms around the thane’s neck, but he brushed her off like a flea.

            “What art thou doing here, Gruoch? I don’t recall inviting you inside.”

            Elsbeth, panting and flushed from running, made a respectful curtsy before entering the doorway. “I beg thy pardon, my lord, I did not intend to allow her out of my sight.”

            “Get this miniature wench out of here,” he spat. “I have neither energy nor patience to bear the frivolity of little girls.”

            Herding Gruoch out of the room like a lamb, Elsbeth apologized profusely. “I’m terribly sorry, your lordship, it shan’t happen again.”

            Gruoch glanced back at her father with an indignant expression before she was shooed out of the chamber.

            “Forgive him, Gruoch,” Elsbeth sighed when they were in the hallway. “He means it not.”

            Unexpectedly, the girl’s angelic face contorted into a gargoyle: she had never worn such a scowl before.

            “Yes, he does,” she said in a low voice.



            Three years passed.

            One particular night, after a trying day, Kenneth had sat in his long, empty dining hall and consumed pint after pint of ale. His eyes were bloodshot, his garments askew.

            “You, knave,” he called to an attendant in a slurred voice. “Send for my daughter. Tell her I wish to speak with her.”

            The servant reappeared minutes later with the girl. Gruoch had seen eight years pass over the earth, and three years alone had changed her greatly. The soft, round cheeks that bespoke innocence had thinned and aged. Her features should have been innocent—but such hostility was distorting her countenance already, such an expression in those eyes—no child alive had such anger or wintriness! A sharp, caustic retort was constantly on her lips awaiting speech.

            “You sent for me, Father?” she said tonelessly.

            “You may leave us,” Kenneth said to the attendants, and then they were alone with the fire flickering in the grate softly, long shadows stretching across the table from the empty candelabra.

            “Dost thou know, girl, what day it is?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

            “The twentieth of November,” she replied emotionlessly.

            Smack! His hand audibly whapped the side of her face. A small, suppressed squeak of pain was muffled in her throat.

            “Insolent girl! I know what the date is,” he snarled. “This day, eight years ago, thou wast born.”

            She could not remember the first time that her father had struck her. It had always been a part of her childhood, always understood that her father resented her very existence—she could not imagine life being any other way.

            “Never forget, Gruoch,” he told her—as he told her frequently, particularly when ale had loosened his tongue, though he was no kinder sober, “thou art a murderess. Thy soul is already tainted from thy bloody birth.”

            “Yes, father,” she whispered.

            Instantly, his open palm smacked her cheekbone again and forced a purplish bruise onto her face.

            “You shall speak when I give thee permission,” he growled.

            And she nodded, downtrodden, her eyes stinging.

            “Dost thou have tears in thine eyes?” he sneered. “If thou wishest to be another of my sons in my heart, thou must learn to rise above such trivial, womanish frailties. Do I make myself clear?”

            “Yes, father,” she murmured, blinking back the moisture.