Authors: Laurin Wittig - Guardians Of The Targe 02 - Highlander Avenged
ALSO BY LAURIN WITTIG
Charming the Shrew
(The Legacy of MacLeod—Book I)
Daring the Highlander
(The Legacy of MacLeod—Book II)
The Devil of Kilmartin
(A Kilmartin Glen Novel)
Jewels of Historical Romance,
The Winter Stone
, three novellas
(Guardians of the Targe—Book 1)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Laurin Wittig
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
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Cover design by Anne Cain
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014900811
For Flora and Kinta
I wish for you your very own happily-ever-afters!
Scottish Highlands, Late Spring, 1307
growled her frustration at her cousin Rowan, who glared back at her from her perch on the end of her bed. The Highland Targe, a grey, palm-sized stone that had been in the keeping of the MacAlpin women for generations, lay in Rowan’s lap on top of an open ermine sack. “How am I ever to train you to be a proper Guardian if you cannot even master the simplest of blessings?” Jeanette knew her voice was strident and her words harsh but her patience had long since died. “The symbols must be made together with the words.” She floated her hands through the air in graceful arcs and swirls, just as her mother had taught her, repeating the rhythmic chanting that completed the protective blessing. “I was able to do this when I was but eight winters old!”
Rowan was staring at her now, a look of fury in her pale green eyes. “And how many years before you were eight did you get to practice this? More than a fortnight, I am sure.”
Rowan’s fury brought Jeanette up short. The two of them rarely disagreed, and never argued. She closed her eyes and tried to find the calm reason that had always been her way, but the danger that loomed over her beloved clan, a danger only a trained Guardian could protect them from, had smothered any calm she might still harbor.
“You are right, of course,” she said, wishing that she could rid her voice of the edge of her own rising anger. Jeanette had been trained almost since birth to take her mother’s place as Guardian, and yet the power of the Targe had chosen Rowan for that position, ripping itself from Jeanette’s mum against both her will, and Rowan’s. The new Guardian should have been Jeanette, or even, perhaps, her younger sister, Scotia. Never in all the lore she had studied had a Guardian not been a direct descendant of the MacAlpins of Dunlairig.
Rowan was her cousin on her father’s side—not from the female MacAlpin line. Rowan was a MacGregor.
With a resigned sigh and a hard swallow to ease the constriction of her throat, Jeanette forced herself to unclench her hands.
“Again,” she said as nicely as she was able to say.
Rowan scowled at Jeanette, then rubbed the spot between her auburn brows before pinching her eyes closed, scrunching up her forehead as if she were in pain, and mumbling the most basic blessing a Guardian needed to know. The beautiful, sometimes guttural, words of a language no one had understood for generations were almost right, though when spoken without the gentle spirit of Jeanette’s mother, they sounded harsh and angry. Rowan’s hands gripped her knees as if she dared not let go.
“Stop,” Jeanette demanded. “You must use the hand signs at the same time. Do it again, and focus on what you are doing this time.”
“Enough!” Rowan wrapped the sack around the Targe stone, cinching it closed with a hard tug on the drawstring, and stood abruptly. “I have told you more than once that the things you insist I must do worked for your mum’s gift. They do not work for mine.”
“But it is the way of the Guardian—words and symbols. It is the way the Guardian calls upon the power of the Targe stone.”
“Not for me.”
Jeanette blinked and pinched her lips together hard for a moment as she searched her memories of everything her mother had taught her and everything she had read in the chronicles left by past Guardians. Irritation with herself this time had her muttering her father’s favorite curses under her breath. She could not remember any mention of another way to train a Guardian.
“You must be trained, Rowan.” Her words strained against her clenched teeth. “I promised Mum I would train you to be a proper Guardian. I promised that I would prepare you as she prepared me. If I do not, you will not be able to protect the clan, as is your duty now. We need you to put Mum’s protections back about this castle. I will not let her down again.”
The ire drained from Rowan’s face, leaving behind an odd blend of sympathy and irritation. She sighed and reached for Jeanette’s hands. It was all Jeanette could do not to pull free of her cousin’s grip. She’d rather have Rowan’s ire than her pity.
“Is that what all of this is about?” Rowan asked. “Cousin, you have not ever let her down.”
Jeanette yanked away and turned from the sorrow in Rowan’s eyes.
“I did not protect her from that English spy.” The horror of that moment when he had plunged his dagger into her mother’s heart would never leave her. “I was not chosen by the Targe to be the Guardian, as she wanted, and now I seem unable to help you take up her place. I let her down, and now the entire clan is in danger because we have no true Guardian.”
Jeanette could hear the coldly quiet anger in Rowan’s voice and she immediately regretted her rash words. She squared her shoulders and faced her cousin. “We have no trained Guardian.”
“You said ‘true’ Guardian.”
Jeanette looked at her feet. “Aye, I did.”
“Jeanette, I know it was a blow to you when I was chosen, but I
chosen. I am the true Guardian. I did not ask for it, nor did I want it, but it has fallen to me and I have accepted the responsibility. You have tried to train me in the ways you were trained but they do not work for me and my gift. Perhaps it is because I am not a MacAlpin? I do not ken, but it does not mean you have failed and it does not mean I am a false Guardian.” Now it was Rowan who was pacing the room.
“I ken that you are the true Guardian, Rowan. I do. But it has left me unmoored. Whether you have intended to or not, you have taken my purpose away. If I cannot train you—”
The heavy oaken door swung open without so much as a knock and Scotia, Jeanette’s dark-haired younger sister, stood there, glowering at them, as she had done every day since her mother had been laid to rest barely a fortnight ago.
“You are summoned to the chief’s chamber,” she said.
“Both of us?” Jeanette asked. As Guardian and as wife to the new chief, Nicholas, Rowan was always included in the chief’s meetings, but no other women.
“Nay, only the Guardian. We are not called.”
Jeanette sighed. “We will begin again after the midday meal,” she said to Rowan.
“Nay, we will not,” Rowan said, a new firmness to her voice and her bearing. “Nicholas will help me learn to use my gift with the Targe. He is the only one who has been able to so far.”
Rowan cut her off with a raised hand. “I promise to speak the words of the blessing every time.”
“And the motions.” It was not a request.
“I will endeavor to remember the motions as well, but I do not promise that.”
“ ’Tis a start,” Jeanette said.
Rowan stared at her for a long moment, as if she could not decide what to say next. Finally, she shook her head. “ ’Tis all. For now at least.”
Again she was silenced by Rowan’s hand in the air. “I will ask for help when I am ready for it—that I promise, but for now I must discover how to use my gift in my own way.”
“ ’Tis not the way of the Guardians.”
“ ’Tis the way of
Guardian,” Rowan said as she left the chamber.
Scotia looked over at her sister, her dark eyebrows drawn down over the same green eyes Rowan had. “At least she gets a say in how we destroy the English,” she said, venom making her voice raspy, “if they dare show their faces here again.”
Jeanette shook her head at the sister she barely recognized anymore and sighed. The English spy had killed more than just their mother. With one swift stroke of his blade, he had killed Scotia’s innocence, too, filling her instead with hate and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.
“Aye, she gets a say, but she cannot seem to learn even the most basic blessing, and if she cannot do that, she will never be able to protect this clan or this castle, as is her duty. Time is running out. The castle and all who abide here are vulnerable. None of us will be safe when the English return for the Targe.”
EANETTE STRODE OUT
of the tower and into the bailey and stopped, shocked, as always, by the destruction that had befallen her home, Dunlairig Castle, in just a few weeks.
She pressed the heel of her hand to her chest, where the ache of all her losses seemed to gather like a hot stone. To her right, the entire north side of the curtain wall was nothing but rubble, revealing the rich woad blue of the loch and a vista of craggy mountains in the distance. They still did not know why the wall had fallen, but that mystery had been set aside in the face of more pressing problems. To her left lay the blackened remains of the great hall. Most of the clan’s supplies and the hall itself had been burned by the same English spy who had killed their Guardian, her mother, taking her from them just when she was most needed. Jeanette squeezed her eyes tight, as if that would reverse the disasters that had overrun the small clan.
It did not.
She needed to get away from everything and everyone, if only for a short time. She needed to find that calm center within her that had always been there but that had disappeared the day her mother had died, or maybe even before that, when Rowan had been chosen by the Targe.
She crossed the small bailey and went through the deeply shadowed gate passage. She didn’t know where she was headed, but she knew she needed to get out of the castle. When she came out of the passage and into the sun, Denis, the guard, pushed himself off a small cask he often sat on just outside the gate.
“Where you be going this fine day, mistress?” he said to her as she whipped past him.
“For a walk.” She flung the words back over her shoulder.
She could hear short bursts of breath wheeze out of him as he jogged to catch up. A surprisingly strong hand on her arm stopped her.
“You cannot leave the castle alone, Mistress Jeanette,” he said, holding her in place with a light but firm grip. “The English could be anywhere,” he said in a loud whisper, as if they could be standing just behind her.
She looked down at his hand, then up at the watery blue eyes of the old man. “None have been seen since that murdering spy was killed, have they?”
“Nay, but that does not mean—”
“I will be fine on my own.”
“I cannot allow that.”
She pulled out of his grip and stood as tall as she could, which meant she was actually looking down at the bandy-legged guard.
“I can take care of myself,” she said. “I will be alert.” She placed her hand on his arm this time and softened her voice. “I promise.”
He looked unsure but it was a rare thing that Jeanette, once considered the future Guardian, was gainsaid anything she really wanted. She had learned not to misuse that privilege but she also knew how to subtly apply it when she needed to. And even though it was clear she was no longer the future anything, the clan had not yet lost the habit of treating her as if she were.
Denis sighed. “You shall not be gone long, then?”
“Nay, not long.” She gave him a quick smile, even though she did not feel like smiling, and took off for the forested ben that rose behind the castle.
Leaving the morning sunshine for the cool shade of the tree-sheltered path was the closest thing to peace she had felt since her mother had taken ill last fall. She tried to pull both the coolness of the air and the peace that floated on it into her, but shame over her failures, grief, and fear for what the future held shoved it away. She could not draw enough air into her lungs for a deep breath, but she could not stop moving, either. Peace was not within her grasp and might never be again.
She needed to go, to leave, to escape all the pain that seemed trapped as much within her as within the broken castle and clan. But she knew that wherever she went, she would always carry the pain with her—the knowledge that she had not lived up to her birthright—like a scar on her heart.
A tiny wren trilled in the trees above her head, filling the wood with a song full of joy and life so at odds with Jeanette’s black thoughts that she grimaced. She might not be the Guardian, but that did not mean she needed to wallow in self-pity. She was sick of it, sick of herself. She would find a way to be of use to her clan.
Morven, the clan’s aging healer, had trained Jeanette for years now, telling her that she would one day be the clan’s healer when Morven could no longer fulfill her duties. The death of Elspet, Jeanette’s mum, had hit the auld woman even harder than the rest of them. She’d brought Elspet into the world, helped her birth her bairns, and had fought to find a cure for the illness that had all but wasted Elspet away before the spy had killed her. Before all this, in spite of her frailty, Morven had held on to her place as healer. Since then, she had withdrawn into herself and left all healing work to Jeanette.
Jeanette knew she would have taken Morven’s place eventually, even if she
become the Guardian, but now she could step into that position without reservation. That would serve the clan and it would keep her busy, even once Rowan decided she did need Jeanette’s help with her training. If she ever did.