Scottish Highlands, 1351
Shrouded in mist, Loch Nis loomed, dark and foreboding, in the distance. Lachlann pulled the packhorse along swiftly, anxious to be home before nightfall. He needed to see his family, to hold his son. He checked his sporan. The wee leather ball and wooden horse figurine were there, safe. He could hardly wait to watch Iain’s little face light up when he gave him the toys.
Allasan should be pleased that he’d found everything on her list. He grinned. They had their differences, but if there was one thing about his wife, she knew what she wanted. She was the most stubborn Gael alive. Despite fever, nausea, and a sick three-year-old to care for, she’d almost pushed him out of the door.
“You have to go,” she’d urged, her brown eyes unnaturally bright. “I want the dye and you’ll find it in Inbhir Nis. You promised! I didn’t work day and night all summer to be disappointed because of a paltry ailment. I have my family and yours all around me if I need anything. Go! You’ll only be in my way here!”
He had to admit, she’d been right. The Lùnastal festival in Inbhir Nis was much larger than their local fairs, with a wide variety of merchants in attendance. Not only had he found her purple dye and wax candles, but all sorts of vegetable seeds as well, even Norse favorites such as horseradish and mustard.
Thanks to a bountiful harvest and the cloth that Allasan wove so skillfully, he’d had plenty with which to barter. He’d even been able to choose gifts – Iain’s toys, silk ribbons for his wife and sisters-in-law, and iron gall ink for the bard.
He only wished that Allasan and Iain had been able to go with him as planned. He’d worried about them the whole week.
What was wrong with the horse? He tugged lightly on the rope. The beast stalled, its ears flat back. He tugged harder, then smelled it, the foul stench of smoke.
“Come on,” he urged the animal. “Someone’s just burning something.”
But burning what? As he drew closer to the village, he saw black smoke billowing from the mountain. His gut clenched. Something was wrong. He moved faster.
The packhorse resisted.
Damn it! He had to get home. When the animal continued to balk, he tied it to a tree and ran.
By the time he reached the outskirts of his village, his eyes were burning. Smoke was beginning to choke him.
He ran faster.
Someone grasped his arms, swinging him to a halt.
“You’re going the wrong way! You need to get out of here!”
Gaelic, but the accent was odd. Dimly, through the smoke, he saw a stranger standing before him, his face shrouded by a hood.
“I’m going to my family!”
“They’re gone. You need to turn around and head back to Inbhir Nis.”
“What do you mean, they’re gone?”
They must’ve moved away from the fire. He pushed forward. He’d be able to help.
The stranger stopped him again.
“You’re the farmer, aren’t you? The Norseman they call ‘Ox’?”
“I’m sorry, friend. Your family is gone. Your entire village was wiped out.”
“Explain yourself!” Lachlann roared, his heart suddenly pounding in his ears.
“They’re all dead. The plague… It took your whole village in less than a week. They’ve been burning everything – bodies, houses, clothing, bedding. There’s nothing left.”
Lachlann began to run.
“Turn around!” the stranger shouted after him. “A Dhaimh, sàbhail thu fhèin!”
He ran as fast as he could, the fetid smoke filling his nostrils, burning his eyes and throat. He rushed through the village without pause, not slowing until he reached his longhouse. He stopped then, gasping, his heart beating in his ears. The thatch roof was gone, the stone blackened with soot.
“Allasan! Iain!” Racing inside, he found only ashes. He stared. Ashes. Their iron kettle nestled on the floor of the hearth, blackened, smoldering. On shaking legs, he walked the short length of the house. Not a sign, not a hint. Where were they?
They had to be all right. Just a week ago, Allasan had been cooking, weaving, arguing. Iain had been playing, laughing. They couldn’t be… They must have fled.
He stumbled back out. Black smoke whirled around him like fingers of death.
Gasping, he ran to his parents’ home. The stone structure still stood, blackened, roofless. Heat seemed to radiate from within. He stared at it, unable to move as dark flakes fell around him. Ashes!
The house built by his grandfather’s grandfather, the oldest and largest in their village, the home he’d grown up in, was reduced to a blackened pile of stones. A shuffling sound caught his attention. His heart leapt.
A hen fluttered from behind the house.
Lachlann turned away, tears burning down his cheeks as dread clamped coldly around his heart.
Where was everyone? He glanced wildly about him. They couldn’t all be gone, not the whole village.
Castle Chisholm! They would have sought refuge at the castle. Allasan and Iain would surely be there. It had been Allasan’s home. He beat the trail up to the castle. The smoke was thinner as he approached the unfinished stone structure. The gates were closed, but he knew the guards.
“My family,” he said urgently. “I want to see my family!”
Brian, an old friend, stepped forward, grimacing.
“Lachlann…” he faltered.
The Gael shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Where are they?”
His friend’s hands grasped his shoulders.
“They’re not here, Lachlann,” he said quietly. “They died.”
“They can’t be dead! I just left them a week ago!”
“It happened quickly. Your whole village was struck.”
“My parents, my brothers…”
“To the best of my knowledge, you’re the only survivor.”
Lachlann’s knees buckled. Brian’s hands braced him, held him up.
Allasan, Iain, Mother, Father, Ivar, Vali, their wives, their children…
How could they all be dead? It wasn’t possible.
“Allasan’s parents?” he choked.
“I haven’t seen them, but they could be here.”
“Can I go and look for them?”
Brian shook his head. “The chief forbids any of the Norse to enter, if there are any left besides you. The sickness started in your village, but we’ve already lost some of our own people.”
“Rónán and his family?”
“Last time I heard, the bard’s family was all right. I thought Rónán would be with you.”
“With me? Why would you think that?”
“He set off for Inbhir Nis on one of the chief’s horses to find you and tell you of your family.”
“Rónán went to Inbhir Nis?” He could hardly fathom it. Rónán hated riding.
“That’s where he said he was going. He left a few days ago.” The Gael held out a flask. “Take this. I’m sorry, Lachlann, but you have to go.”
“Where are the bodies?” His own words sounded distant, as if someone else had spoken them.
Brian gazed at him, tears in his dark eyes. They’d shared many a meal through the years.
“I haven’t been to the village, but from what I’ve heard, all were burned.”
Lachlann’s stomach roiled.
“Did the chief order this?”
The warrior shook his head. “We bury our dead. But with a sickness like this…” He shuddered. “In the end, some of our people helped. The chief might order the same here to stop the disease from spreading.” He pushed the flask into Lachlann’s hands. “Drink.”
Lachlann accepted the flask and tried to swallow. But his throat was clogged with smoke and tears. He gagged. Wordlessly, he handed the flask back to Brian and nodded a farewell.
He had to check all the houses. He would bury any bodies he found. His family, his people… He headed back to the village on legs he no longer felt. Only his mind worked.
Find your dead.
But where? The scant structures all looked the same, scorched and black with soot. Piles of ashes were everywhere, some still smoldering.
He wandered from house to house, looking, listening for signs of life. But there were none. Silence taunted him, stark and pervasive, broken only by his own shallow breaths. What should he do? His mind felt numb.
“What are you doing here?”
Starting violently, Lachlann turned to see the hooded stranger striding towards him. A cloth covered his nose and mouth.
“Why are you here?” the man asked him.
“I seek my dead.”
“I told you, they burned everything. You’ll find no bodies.”
“Where did they burn them?”
The man stepped closer to place his hands on Lachlann’s arms.
“In their homes,” he replied quietly. “Mostly in their beds, where they died.”
Oh, God. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. Iain. Lachlann fell to his knees, gasping for air, gagging on it. His chest… He couldn’t…
“Breathe.” The man pressed his shoulders, sounded long, even breaths.
“Breathe,” repeated the voice. “Steady.”
Lachlann tried to mimic the rhythmic breathing of the stranger crouched before him.
“That’s right. Keep going. Good.”
He didn’t know how long they knelt there as he struggled for control. But the pressure remained on his shoulders until he stopped shaking.
“There’s nothing left for you to do here.” The voice, with its strange accent, finally penetrated his consciousness. “You must leave. You could still get sick.”
“Where will I go?” Lachlann asked hoarsely. “I should have helped my people.”
“There was nothing you could have done.”
“Then I should have died with them.”
“But you didn’t,” came the quiet response. “You’re obviously not meant to die yet.”
Lachlann swayed. The man shook him slightly.
“Go back to Inbhir Nis. Return in spring.”
Inbhir Nis. Rónán had gone to Inbhir Nis. He could find him. Slowly, he rose. The man rose with him.
“Go,” he urged again.
Nodding, Lachlann turned away. When he reached the edge of the village, he glanced back. The stranger stood watching him, a lone, upright figure swathed in smoke, surrounded by ruin.
Lachlann began running, pausing only when he reached his fields. They were cloaked in the same deathly smoke that was choking him. He hurried on until he reached the loch.
Collapsing to his knees, he howled, the sounds of a tortured animal ripping from his chest.
How could they all be dead, and he still lived? He should have been here. He might have helped them.
He might have died with them. Death would have been preferable to this.
Gasping, he yanked at his tunic, ripping it away from his neck.
“Nei!” he bellowed.
He sobbed and raged until his throat was raw, until he could hardly breathe.
He was suffocating.
Up. He had to get up or he would die here in the ashes. He had to find Rónán.
He trudged onward, his legs shaking so hard that walking seemed impossible. But he didn’t stop. He forced himself to keep moving, one foot in front of the other. Walking. Stumbling.
Night fell. The smoke dissipated, then disappeared altogether. Stars twinkled in the dark, clear sky. Tears poured from his burning eyes, down his cheeks, as he pressed on.
His whole family, his whole village… they’d all been dying whilst he bartered for vegetable seeds and ribbons.
Please, Rónán, be alive and well.
The ground suddenly trembled. Lachlann glanced at the loch. The water was rippling, but there was no breeze. He moved away from the water and kept walking. But this wasn’t the mild sort of tremor they usually had in the glen. The earth shook violently. Ahead of him, an enormous pine tree uprooted completely.
Voices! Was someone calling his name?
“Rónán!” he called urgently.
In the moonlight, cracks appeared in the earth. He heard the ground breaking. All around him, it was breaking! Twisting, turning, Lachlann desperately tried to find safe ground. Suddenly, there was a terrible roar, like a giant screaming in pain.
A crack raced towards him, widening into a chasm beneath his feet. He shouted as he slipped, grasping desperately at the earth. It crumbled beneath his hands.
He tried to climb out. He was sliding.
“Lord, have mercy on my soul!”