Authors: Deborah MacGillivray
Kensington Publishing Corp.
Dedicated to the late Dawn Thompson
I still remember, Dawn…
Monika Wolmarans, for everything…
Diane Davis White, Candy Thompson,
Jacquie Rogers, and Lynsay Sands
and most especially to Hilary Sares with deep admiration for giving me the corset that must be worn upside-down and the push into the volcano!
Scotland, December 1296
Searing agony ripped through his back. The muscles of his right side screamed a plaint, warning he erred in pushing too far this day. Despite the spreading numbness, which always followed the intense burning, Noel de Servian struggled to stay upright in the saddle. The icy winds cut like daggers against his stiff back, and with each ragged breath the pain increased tenfold.
At this late juncture, he realized he should have stayed in Berwick until spring as King Edward had suggested. Even more to the point, mayhap he should not have rashly ridden on ahead of his small party. His edginess had pressed him to dismiss customary safety measures and recklessly spur Brishen to the forefront, hoping to scout out the way to the passes. Pulling off his helm, he looked about him and frowned. His troops were nowhere in sight. Clearly, he had ridden on too far ahead. Noel exhaled his frustration. Wagons traveled so slowly. He chafed, impatient to reach Craigendan Keep.
His new home.
He would finally, for the first time in his adult life, have a home to call his own.
Despite the snow swirling about him so thickly he could barely see to the end of his horse’s nose, or that fiery pain racked his poor muscles, the thought brought a smile to his lips. Though one of Edward’s most trusted knights, Noel’s reward had been long in coming. Too many battles. So much sacrifice. And it had nearly cost his life.
His mind cast back over a score year ago to when he had been a squire to the mighty King Edward, training alongside Julian Challon and Damian St. Giles. They had been proud to serve one of the most powerful monarchs England had ever seen. So naive they, little did any of them envision the horrors that lay ahead in their young lives, how bloody long the road to peace would be, the goal forevermore out of reach. His green mind had not counted on the brutal ugliness of warfare, not counted upon Edward’s unquenchable thirst to be the king of the whole of Britain and beyond.
counted on being unable to find the bloody passes to Glen Shane,” he groused to his steed, Brishen, as he reined him to a halt. Reaching under his mantle, he withdrew the crude map from an oilskin pouch at his waist and studied it once more. Blinking against the falling snow, he tried to shield the parchment with his heavy woolen cape to prevent the big flakes from hitting it and smearing the ink. “The passes
be here. We are close. We damn well have to be.”
The horse gave him a tired nicker and shook his head up and down, the fittings of the bridle jingling like faery bells in the stillness; then he looked straight ahead as if saying,
right there, fool.
Noel wiped the snow from his eyes, squinting to see through the blinding storm. Was the gap in the hills really there and he simply lacked the wherewithal to spot the opening in this impenetrable whiteness?
Placing his hand behind him on the high cantle of the saddle, he turned to check his bearings. A spasm, white-hot, racked his muscles, nearly causing him to pass into blackness. The throbbing was that bad. That dangerous. He could not lose his awakening thoughts in this storm, or it might cost his life. After all these years of service to the English king, he had finally been granted the title of baron and the smallholding in this rugged Northland.
“It would be sad, indeed, if I died out here in this blizzard, never to lay eyes upon the fief that is finally mine.” Noel chuckled at the irony, but then flinched, as even that caused his back to ache more.
Just four months past, Edward had convened Parliament in Berwick, a city once called ‘the pearl of Scotland.’ Of course, that had been before Edward’s troops had invested the town in a three-day sack. The horrendous aftermath saw Noel waking in the deep of night, covered with sweat and unable to shake the ugly nightmares that plagued him. A foul miasma of half-rotted corpses still polluted the air come August when Edward Plantagenet had humbled all of Scottish nobility, forcing them to kneel to him—not as overlord of Scotland, but as their new ruler. After the rout of the Scottish army in April at the Battle of Dunbar, Edward had leisurely circled most of the conquered country. With an eye to seeing their defiant spirit crushed, the king demonstrated with redoubtable power, his wealth, his might, hoping to impress upon the Scots that he now held the country in his fist.
“I have doubts on that, Brishen. I see these Scotsmen watching Edward when the king is unawares. A steeled obduracy bespeaks these Highlanders are not cowered by the English, but merely bide their time. Already small pockets of resistance are causing mischief. Soon, someone—like young Andrew de Moray—will light the fires of rebellion, and the coming storm will roll across these untamed lands. There will be no stopping it, I fear.”
Brishen’s head bobbed up and down again, as if agreeing with the validity of his master’s words. Noel gave a soft chuckle at the animal’s behavior. Sometimes his horse was too bloody intelligent.
“Why I am eager to take control of the fief Edward conferred upon me, horse. I want everything settled before the impending madness erupts.”
Slowing the transfer of the fief, in April he had taken a sword to his back in fierce single combat with the Baron Craigendan. The wound proved slow to heal. Oh, the muscles and flesh had mended. Vexing, the wound site remained tender, sore. The fever he battled after being injured had sapped his strength; he struggled still to regain it. Ten years ago he would have healed much faster.
He sighed. “Ten years ago I was a young man. This day I feel old, seven and thirty years
old, so tired it hurts to breathe.” With an exhausted resolve, Noel nudged Brishen forward with his knees. “You are so bloody smart, horse, mayhap you can find the proper path into Glen Shane. The damn passes
to be near.”
A strange racket arose, spooking the charger, causing him to bounce on his hooves and rear slightly. Ravens. Thousands and thousands of screeching ravens, their racket deafening. His horse had been through more battles than Noel cared to count, yet now stood trembling and refused to move any farther. The cacophony increased, as if a huge murder of ravens was taking flight. So peculiar, he had seen flocks of birds do this in autumn, but never in a snowstorm such as this. As the mount’s fear increased, he began to back up. Noel tried to restrain the horse, but its alarm waxed out of control. The black mouth of hell opened before them. The birds came straight at them, pushing Brishen to rear high.
“Merde!” Noel’s back slammed hard against the high cantle of his saddle, the helm falling from his grip. Agonizing pain lanced through his whole body, so intense he barely maintained his seat. Numbness possessed his right hand. He could not even flex his fingers. His left hand grasped the squared pommel and held on, all he could manage. The damn horse spun on his heels and fled, not responding to Noel’s knee commands, the reins flapping uselessly just out of his reach.
Noel gritted his teeth. Tears poured down his face and mixed with the melting snowflakes until he was not sure how long the animal ran. And ran. There was no stopping him. Fighting waves of blackness that threatened to pull him into passing out, Noel lost all sense of direction as the horse galloped heedlessly along a narrow, steepening path, carrying him farther and farther away from the passes of Glen Shane and the shelter he hoped to seek with Julian Challon at his new fortress of Glenrogha. With the snow heavy, limbs of the pine trees bowed low, forcing him to dodge them. His mantle flapped each time he brushed one. The snow covered his surcoat and leathern hose and fell inside the edge of his cross-laced boots, the icy moisture leaching away his body heat. And still the crazed animal ran.
Darkness swirled through his mind, as his back jarred against the cantle with every jump the horse took, so savage the agony that he lost the function of his hand to clutch the leather pommel before him. Unable to focus, he was powerless to react fast enough when Brishen ran under a low limb. The heavy bough caught Noel across the chest, sending hot irons of torture through his muscles as he was knocked from the saddle, a second time when he landed hard, his hip hitting first, then his tender side.
He could not catch air. It was too much for his abused body; he simply lay there and, with a sense of detachment, watched the snow falling down upon him. At first it was cold. Deep shivers began to rack his body. Brishen came over and nudged his master’s shoulder with his nose, trying to provoke Noel to stir. As the snow continued to cover him, the shuddering lessened, nor did he feel the freezing chill any longer. Little by little, he ceased to experience the bite of pain, just a strange soothing warmth.
Noel closed his eyes. “Brishen, have I traveled all these many miles, and fought so many ugly battles, only to have my fate meted out by falling snow?”
“Andrew! Annis!” Lady Skena MacIain lifted the fur-lined hood of the woolen mantle away from her face to listen, hoping to hear her children calling to her in response. There was only silence, that deep hush, which came when snow blankets the land, as if nothing stirred but wisely stayed huddled by fireside or in some cozy nest.
“Anyone with a thimble full of sense,” she grumbled.
Trying not to give in to rising panic, she waited. For whatever harebrained reason, the twins had slipped off through the postern gate. Finding two sets of small footprints heading away from Craigendan, she followed, thinking that surely in this storm they had not wandered far. In hindsight, she should have turned back and fetched help in searching for them. Too late now. The blowing snow fell so thickly that it covered their trail, preventing her from pursuing them farther. Daylight was waning; night came early this time of the wheel. In this wonderland of white, losing one’s sense of direction could happen too easily. It was imperative she find them before darkness descended completely.
“If wishes were candles I could light the way back to Craigendan,” she said with growing despair.
The stour was heavy for this early in the season. The Yuletide celebrations were upon them—not that there would be much to celebrate. Still, this part of Scotland generally never saw snow like this until deep winter, sennights yet away. That worried her, as if wintertide had come early and would be a long, harsh one. Just what Craigendan did not need.
But then, this whole year had been nothing but one disappointment after another. First, everyone had lived with their hearts dark, anxious as the English had ridden north to invade Scotland. Word spread throughout the Highlands of the sack of Berwick, where a thousand score perished in three days of killing. Then the terror came closer—neighboring valleys of Glen Shane and Glen Eallach had been given in charters by Edward Longshanks to English lords, men of Norman descent. Dragons of Challon, they called these warriors with whispered awe.
“Bloody English dragons,” she spoke aloud, simply to hear some sound in this silent landscape. “At least Craigendan is too small of a holding for a wee beastie to want to come and claim. We have naught but a bunch of mouths to feed and damn little food.”
She grimaced. And no men to protect Craigendan or hunt for meat come harshest winter. Nearly all their men had died on the field at Dunbar, her husband leading them. Without someone to fetch fresh meat regularly, Craigendan’s people would be skin and bones come spring. Scots called winter “famine months.” This year she worried it could be the worst her people had ever faced. The long summer had blistered the land; no rain for sennight upon sennight saw a drought grip the whole country, drying up burns and parching crops. Her stomach knotted at the last thought. Oh, Craigendan had enough food to eke by—for the nonce. Howbeit, if this snow came as a portend of the months ahead, things could become dangerous for her smallholding.
Her lord husband had been killed in the battle back in April. Aye, she had not spent long mourning his passing, for which she now struggled against profound guilt. Not that Angus had been a bad man. Well-respected by two Scottish kings, he had proven a good lord to Craigendan, protected it and saw that it prospered. He had been kind to her, after a fashion. Only, she had not married him for love, had not married by her choice either. She honored her lord husband, tried to please him and make him happy. Yet, in her naïve heart she always believed there was the other half of her soul out there waiting to find her. Silly mooncalf dreams of a young lass that refused to die. Angus was a score year older than she, and often treated her more like a daughter than a wife. Unlike those of her cousins, Tamlyn, Rowanne, Raven, and Aithinne, her lands were not part of the ancient charter that protected a female’s rights going back to Pictish times; this charter entitled her kinswomen to hold their land and select their husbands. No choice had she when their king, Alexander III, had betrothed her to a stranger—Angus Fadden, a Lowlander. Still, as winter approached, she now missed Angus, missed the security he had meant to her people.
She shivered, thinking how the English king had sent knights to claim Glen Shane and Glen Eallach. Two of her cousins were now wed to Englishmen, two more were betrothed to Edward’s warriors, and she walked as a widow. So much had altered in less than a year.
“Times change. Sometimes not for better.” Combating the biting fear, she glanced around for telltale signs the children had come this way. “Andrew! Annis! Come. It grows late. Children, oh please answer me!”
Fearful they were lost out there in the endless white, she pushed on. Her wee ones were too small to survive long in this bitter storm. Wolf tracks had come nearer to the stronghold this fortnight past, driven closer to the holding in search of prey. People were not the only ones suffering after the dreadful summer.
“Children! Answer me this instant!” She attempted to sound stern, not panicked.
While she had never loved Angus the way a wife should a husband, she did love the children he had given her. Brother and sister born on the same night, Andrew and Annis were her whole world.
Another gust of spindrift swirled around her. The snow covered her long auburn hair, soaking it, but she dare not lift the hood for protection, as the fur lining muffled her hearing. The wind whistled through the pines, whispering voices of the Auld Ones.