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The ivory tangs of the comb hissed as she dragged them through the tangles in her long red hair. Nighinn Ruaidhe looked out of the window. A luminous fog shimmered across the surface of the loch, and although a log fire burnt in the grate, she shivered, despite the emerald green woollen gown she was wearing.
Today was the day. She had been dreading it for weeks, ever since her father, Moran, the Thain of Craignish promised her to another. As she combed, she became more agitated, attacking the locks of her hair with short, sharp strokes. Frustrated, she threw the bone comb at the timber walls where it shattered and fell to the floor.
‘A bloody stinking Norseman’ she shrieked at her father when he told her of the betrothal. ‘Ye wish me tae lay wi’ a reeking Norse pig? Is that what ye want? Have ye nae concern fer yer only daughter?’
Moran sat at the high table. His narrow, cruel, highland face held high. His mouth and eyes were a little twisted as if a war axe had glanced off his sharp and protruding cheekbones. It gave him an arrogant visage at odds with his too delicate hands and skin. His slender fingers tapped a dagger against the plate of food before him. The hunting dogs at his feet curled their lips and licked their noses as they waited for the bones and scraps to drop from the feeding humans.
‘Daughter, ye will abide by ma will. The auld days are gone nou. These Norse, these Lochlannach, are oor partners. We have a war comin’ with the English bastarts down South, and we need t’be allied tae them. Yer betrothal tae Úlfr will guarantee a treaty between us.’
Six weeks had passed since that day. Six weeks during which, with her cousin, Sinéad, they skulked and schemed around the castle. They pumped visitors for information and raided the treasury to fill their bags with coin as they planned their escape. They would flee to France and start a new life. Both were still young and beautiful. France was full of rich, handsome, noble men who would bend a knee just for a glance from either one of them according to the gossip they picked up from the wives of the traders and noblemen who paid court to her father.
Cloth bags of purloined silver and gold coins nestled in the folds of Nye’s woollen travelling cloak as the two women hurried down the track. A narrow ferry was waiting to take them across the short stretch of deep water from the small island of Innis Luina, which was their home, to the shore.
As the boatman bent his back against the pull of the oars, Nye, as her friends knew her, looked back at her father’s castle. A defensive wall surrounded the three-storey tower house, which stood strong for many decades before her father took possession of it. She looked up to the timber walls of the third floor underneath the thatch and peered at the windows of the room where, as a girl, she was so happy. What was her life now? A tear dripped down her cheek. Sinéad leaned in and pulled her sobbing cousin towards her, holding her tight as they were rowed towards the old wooden jetty and their escape.