Gruadh begins her life story at age nine, when she is briefly kidnapped while riding a horse with her father, Bodhe, and older brother, Farquhar. Violently resisting capture, she grabs the man’s dagger—which he snatches back—and then his brooch, which she stabs through his cheek, causing him to release her.
Throughout her life Gruadh will have to protect herself and the ones she loves, and will have to use violence to defend herself. This is the very first instance in which she realizes that she does have agency and can use violence against those trying to hurt her.
Gruadh falls to the ground and watches Bodhe and Farquhar fight off her attackers. This is the first fight she’s ever seen, and the first time she’s ever watched men die. Her memory of the day is spotty, but she remembers seeing Farquhar die, and her and Bodhe’s grief.
Gruadh realizes how she can use violence to her advantage, but also how it can tear families apart. Early in life, she must reckon with the death of her brother, who died defending her, reaffirming the importance of family.
Gruadh keeps the brooch she used to stab her attacker, although she doesn’t wear it. She explains that it “reminds me to stay strong and wary.”
Gruadh’s strength and suspicion stay with her throughout her life and serve her well. This also recalls her mother’s dying words, when Ailsa urged Gruadh to be strong at all times.
The attacking men belonged to Crinan, mormaer of Atholl. In King Malcolm’s judgment court, Bodhe accuses Crinan of killing Farquhar and kidnapping Gruadh to marry his own son, but the king rules in Crinan’s favor, and Bodhe must pay Crinan for the men Bodhe killed in self-defense. Bodhe will remember this injustice, as will Gruadh.
Throughout her life Gruadh will be confronted with injustices—this is her first experience ending up on the wrong side of a legal judgment, and the sting of the unjust ruling, added to the sting of the death of her brother, will stay with her for life.
After Farquhar’s death, Gruadh becomes Bodhe’s only heir. As a result, her life and blood right becomes even more important. She is descended from generations of kings, and can trace her ancestors back to the Picts and Scotti. She understands that by marrying her, any man could claim the Scottish throne, which puts her in danger.
Gruadh understands that she is more than a woman—she is the result of generations of nobility, and has an obligation to those previous generations. Though she cannot ascend to the throne alone as a woman, proximity to her gives men power and influence. She understands that this places her and her family in danger, both because her heritage encourages others to kidnap her, and because her murder or the murder of her family members would end their bloodline, allowing others to vie for the crown.
Gruadh is abducted again four years later, at thirteen. She goes out with Bethoc and Aella to look for herbs, but does not have anyone give a sian, or protective oath, for them that day. A group of Norsemen kill her guard and carry her away (leaving her friends behind). After a day of travel, she is brought to a long great hall, where men and women are sleeping and eating. Gruadh is tied up and left on a bed in a curtained room to the side of the hall.
Gruadh places faith in Celtic protection spells, blaming this abduction partly on her lapse. Once again, Gruadh’s heritage places her in danger—these men kidnap her because she is Bodhe’s daughter and because she is so valuable to him and to his bloodline.
An old woman comes to give Gruadh food and ale and a bucket to pee in. When she hears footsteps again Gruadh assumes the old woman has returned, but instead she is confronted by a large man who tries to rape her. She cries out, but no one comes to help her. She manages to grab the large man’s dagger and stab him through the stomach. Finally, other men come in and wrestle the assailant away. Gruadh is left alone with another man, Thorfin Sigurdsson, the jarl of the Orkney Islands and Caithness. She asks him what he wants from her, but he does not answer. She criticizes him for leaving her unprotected. He does not respond, but leaves and sends in Ketill Brusisson, a young warrior who will serve as her guard.
For the second time in her life, Gruadh must use physical violence to protect herself. Although later Gruadh will be criticized for learning how to handle a sword formally, which is seen as unwomanly, here, she proves the necessity of being able to defend herself; she knows, even though she is a woman, she will often be in dangerous situations because of her family background and the value of her bloodline.
Ketill tells Gruadh that the man who tried to rape her was Harald Silkhair, a widower who was “overwhelmed” by “the temptation of getting a son by a princess.” Ketill also explains that Thorfin kidnapped her after he asked Bodhe for Gruadh’s hand in marriage, and was rejected. He has kidnapped her to teach Bodhe a lesson and to use her to bargain for land or power. However, later that night, before Thorfin can complete his plan, Bodhe and his men invade the compound, steal Gruadh back, and slaughter many of the Norsemen.
Once again, Gruadh is reminded of how the richness of her bloodline puts her in danger. Thorfin only wanted to marry her because of her pedigree, and Harald wanted to rape her because she would bear him half-royal children. Ironically, later in the novel Thorfin will chastise Gruadh for holding a grudge against him, however her grudge was born from this situation—which was caused by a grudge he himself held.
Back in Fife, Bodhe has hired an Anglo-Saxon priest, Father Anselm. Gruadh suspects that Bodhe has begun to think “more closely about souls and their fates, and perhaps about my education.” Father Anselm has difficulty saying Gruadh’s name, and so calls her Hreowe, which sounds like rue, meaning sorrow. Soon everyone knows Gruadh as “Rue of the Sorrows.”
Many characters turn to Catholicism in times of trouble. The Christian idea of redemption and the afterlife helps Bodhe, and later Macbeth and Gruadh deal with the deaths of those they love, as well as crimes they themselves have committed.
Bodhe rushes to arrange a marriage for Gruadh. He seeks “both a protector” and an “unbreakable alliance” for his lineage. Gruadh is unimpressed by the warriors he presents to her, most of whom are older widowers. Bodhe explains that most younger men are already married and not powerful enough to defend Gruadh and protect her heritage. Gruadh decides she will have to find a way to “ensure my own safety.”
Because Gruadh is a woman, no one expects her to be able to defend herself. They assume she will need a man to protect her. Additionally, although she has a prestigious heritage, she cannot rule alone, and so Bodhe wants to set up a marriage with a husband whose lineage will match hers.