Authors: Kate Forsyth
‘I kent they’d come,’ Donncan said happily. ‘
One of the guards suddenly shouted, ‘Look! They come.’
Bobbing along the clifftop was a chain of orange lights. The crowd cheered. Closer the bobbing lights came, then at last they saw the procession clambering up the steep road to the castle. Lachlan was in the lead, riding upon his black stallion, with Iseult on his right side upon her grey mare. Dide and Duncan Ironfist rode close behind, with the officers streaming out beyond them. In the rear were packhorses, struggling under heavy loads, the snow up to their hocks.
Lachlan dismounted in the courtyard before the castle gates. He held up one hand, preventing those within from surging out. His raven-black wings and hair were all silvered with snow. ‘Is it midnight yet?’ he demanded.
‘No’ yet,’ Meghan called out. ‘Almost.’
‘We must wait until the hour strikes,’ he answered, smiling broadly. ‘No crossing the threshold until after midnight!’
Laughter broke out. Everyone appreciated the point. The first person to cross the threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve determined what sort of year the household would have. It was considered bad luck for someone old or ugly or disadvantaged in some way to be the First Foot, and very good luck for someone strong and hale and handsome. So superstitious were most people about this tradition that the First Foot was usually appointed, just to make sure. He would move from house to house in the village, carrying gifts to ensure a year of prosperity, health and happiness.
‘So are ye to be the First Foot then, Your Highness?’ someone in the crowd called.
Lachlan held up a green branch, torn from one of the pine trees along their way. ‘Who better?’
Cheers rang out. A festive mood animated the crowd, in stark contrast to the gloom of only a few hours earlier. Then Meghan said, ‘I feel the tides turning. It be midnight now!’
Lachlan’s chamberlain solemnly consulted his time-piece, which he carried about in his waistcoat pocket. ‘Midnight it is.’
‘Then let us get in out o’ this cold!’ Lachlan cried. With great ceremony he dismounted, took an armful of bundles from Dillon, and then advanced up to the castle gates, his boots sinking deep in the snow. Quiet fell over the crowd. He passed through the door and flung his evergreen branch upon the fire. Sharp-scented flames sprang up, the pine needles shrivelling in writhing threads of white fire.
Lachlan smiled, his tired face filled with exultation. ‘Well, we made it,’ he said, ‘though to be sure I dinna think we could! How are ye all yourselves?’
As Donncan ran and embraced him joyfully, Iseult and the rest of the weary travellers came through the gates, Dillon leading the Rìgh’s black stallion. They dismounted heavily and came to warm themselves by the fire, as Lachlan gave over his bundles to the chamberlain.
‘See, bread for wealth, rather stale, I’m afraid, but better than none, and salt for luck, and whisky to warm our blood. And would ye believe it, eggs and honey! We can be making ourselves some Het Pint for Hogmanay.’
‘Ye kindled the Lodestar and stilled the storm,’ Meghan said, clasping his arm with both her hands. ‘Och, Lachlan, I am so pleased and proud! That was powerful sorcery you wrought.’
Lachlan nodded, unable to restrain his grin of joy and pride. ‘Aye, and all by myself this time. I was determined that we would make it back here for Hogmanay and Donncan’s birthday. Everyone thought we were mad setting out in such weather and indeed we were, crazy as loons. The snow was up to my chin and the wind was strong enough to lift the horses and throw them down the cliff. We were all sure we could hear death’s bells.
‘But the more wildly the wind blew, the angrier and more determined I got, and so at last I seized the Lodestar and commanded the storm to be still. No-one was more surprised than I was when the Lodestar leapt into life! It was like being struck by lightning, I swear all my hair stood up on end and my fingertips were smoking!’ Lachlan laughed. His golden-topaz eyes were brilliant with excitement, his dark face alight. ‘After that we just slogged on through the snow and so here we are, as promised.’ He cuddled Donncan close, the curly golden head nestling down into his shoulder, golden and black feathers mingling. ‘I tell ye what, though, I be in need o’ a wee dram! I feel like I’ve climbed the Spine o’ the World.’
Smiling, Isabeau poured him some whisky and he tossed it back, then held out his cup for another. She poured him some more and then moved through the chattering crowd, pouring out cup after cup for the tired,
chilled travellers. Someone had swung a cauldron onto the fire and the spicy smell of Het Pint began to drift through the courtyard. She saw Dide leaning over the fire, stirring the cauldron, and felt a sudden, unexpected lurch of her heart. He turned his head and saw her, and gave a weary smile. Isabeau went up to him, the pot of whisky hanging from her hand.
Silently she offered him a cup but he shook his head. ‘Nay, Het Pint for me. That’s the stuff to warm a frozen heart.’
She felt her colour rise. He ladled out some of the hot, spiced ale and offered her a cup. She took it in her gloved hand and he served himself some, then lightly touched his cup to hers.
‘Happy Hogmanay! Love and peace to ye.’
‘Happy Hogmanay,’ she repeated and drank a mouthful. Their eyes met. The cold air between them seemed to crackle. His expression changed and he drew closer to her.
‘How are ye yourself, my bonny Beau?’
‘Cold, hungry, homesick,’ she answered, trying to smile. ‘Sick o’ this war.’
He gave a little nod, then smiled at her, his black eyes glinting in the dancing firelight. ‘Well, I canna do much about the homesickness, but hungry I can help …’ He brought out a rather squashed package from his pocket and handed it to her with a ceremonial flourish of his crimson cap. ‘Bread and the finest goat’s cheese Carraig can offer and a spread o’ quince jam, courtesy o’ Castle Forsaken. The MacSeinn is much better provisioned than us, having Siantan just across the bay.’
Isabeau opened the package eagerly. The bread was stale but the goat’s cheese was soft and tart and the quince jam sweet. She ate hungrily, washing down the dry bread with her spiced ale.
Dide watched her, sipping his own Het Pint. When she had finished, Isabeau gave him a radiant smile. ‘Thank ye. Amazing how much better I feel with some food in my stomach.’
He took her cup and set it down, seizing both her hands in his and chafing them between his own. ‘I can do something about ye being cold too,’ he murmured and drew her closer. She went to him willingly as he enfolded her within the warmth of his heavy coat, wrapping it and his arms about her. Through the layers of his clothes she could feel the thud of his heart and smell the tang of his sweat. She rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes.
Slowly Dide’s hands slid under her plaid, holding her waist lightly. ‘Did ye miss me?’
Isabeau nodded, not opening her eyes. He kissed her forehead. ‘I missed ye too, my Beau.’
She looked up at him, saying with concern, ‘Ye look tired. How have ye been yourself?’
‘Busy as a body louse,’ he said sardonically. ‘We’ve had bitter fighting this past few weeks. They attacked Kinnaird through the storm, did ye ken?’
Isabeau cried aloud in dismay. Kinnaird was the largest town on the shore of the firth, built halfway between the Castle Forlorn and the Castle Forsaken. Geographically, it was the closest to the Isle of the Gods, only a narrow stretch of water separating the
island from the mainland at that point. It had once been one of the richest towns in Eileanan but it had been abandoned after the invasion of the Fairgean. Lachlan had established it as one of the primary strongholds of the Greycloaks, basing many of his men and ships there.
Dide answered the unasked question in her eyes. ‘No’ good, Beau. We lost close on three hundred men and the fortifications were smashed to pieces by their blaygird sea-serpents. We had to call the retreat. They’ve split our forces now. We may hold the headlands still, but we no longer hold the shore.’
Isabeau slumped against him, tears rushing to her eyes. ‘This war will no’ be over soon, will it?’
‘Nay. And if Jorge’s prophecy be true, we shall have to retreat into the hinterland before the rising o’ the comet. We have only a few weeks left to strike a death blow to them, else we’ll be lucky to escape with our lives.’
‘And so many dead already,’ Isabeau murmured. ‘And for what? For what?’
Dide cradled her face with both hands, so that she had to look up at him. With his thumbs he wiped away the tears from her cheeks. ‘Do no’ forget, my master this night kindled the Lodestar and stilled the storm. We are no’ beaten yet, my Beau.’
Her breath caught. The firelight was playing over his face, glinting from his night-deep eyes. All the devilish merriment was gone from his face. It was set grimly and sombrely yet with a vulnerability that struck deep into her heart. For a moment they stared at each other, his hands still cupping her face, then he bent his dark head and kissed her.
Their mouths fitted together perfectly. His hands slid under her plaid again, smoothing the muscles of her back, caressing the curve of her waist. His hand slid lower, but found nothing but the heavy fall of her dress. He pressed his hand flat against her, bringing the lower half of her body up hard against him. His other hand slid back up to grip her arm, just grazing the side of her breast. Despite the layers of clothes between them, his touch was like the brush of fire. Isabeau was unable to help a little murmur in her throat. She rose a little on her toes, trying to get closer to him. At once the kiss deepened, intensified. She could feel his heart hammering against her. When he lifted his mouth away from hers, Isabeau followed it instinctively, straining to reach higher. He put both hands on her waist, holding her body away from his. His eyes were heavy-lidded, his breath hurried. ‘Beau …’ he said. ‘My bonny Beau.’
Her breath steadied. She stepped back from him a little, her legs unsteady. For those few moments she had lost all sense of the world around them, there had been only sensation. Now it all rushed back upon her, the bitter cold of the night air, the sinking flames of the fire, the lack of feeling in her feet. Only a few people still stood about, talking and drinking. Most had gone back inside. No-one seemed to notice Dide and Isabeau together in the shadow of the archway, but Isabeau was flushed with embarrassment nonetheless. She stepped back, feeling a little sense of loss as the cold darkness struck between them.
‘Ye’re cold,’ Dide said. ‘Come, let us get in out o’ the snow, for Eà’s sake!’
Isabeau nodded, feeling a familiar surge of uncertainty. He bent and picked up their cups and ladled the last of the Het Pint into them. ‘This will warm ye,’ he said, smiling. He slid one arm about her waist. ‘Come on, let’s go in.’
Together they went in from the courtyard. The Greycloaks had taken over most of one wing of the ruined castle, most of the soldiers camping out in one small hall. The women had set up camp in two or three smaller rooms to one side, with the Rìgh and his retinue sleeping in a smaller hall at the far end. Isabeau normally slept in a small antechamber to their room, sharing her bed with Maya and Bronwen and sometimes Olwynne too.
The long hall where the soldiers slept was now quiet, most rolled in their blankets to sleep. A low fire burnt in the centre of the room, blue smoke filling the air. Dide steered Isabeau through the long rows of sleeping soldiers, holding her hand firmly. He took her through into one of the small antechambers, where the Rìgh’s officers slept. This room had a fireplace so that the smoke did not sting Isabeau’s eyes so much. She saw the dark forms of sleeping soldiers and pulled against Dide’s hand. He smiled at her in reassurance, his teeth flashing white in the semidarkness. ‘Come sit wi’ me a while, and drink your Het Pint and get warm,’ he whispered. ‘We canna be talking in your room, with the Ensorcellor there and the bairns.’
She let Dide pull her forward. He stumbled over one sleeping form, hissed an apology with a sparkling glance at Isabeau, then led her to a pile of furs and blankets in
one corner. She sat down, hugging her knees, and he wrapped one of the blankets around her shoulders then sat down beside her, leaning his back against the wall. Isabeau sipped at the warm ale and felt herself relax.
‘Where’s your wee owl tonight?’ he asked, laughter in his voice.
‘Out hunting,’ she answered, caught as usual between laughter and embarrassment. ‘She’s eaten every spider in this Eà-forsaken castle, and since the storm has passed has flown down to the forest to search for some grubs.’
‘So I do no’ need to fear being pecked if I try and kiss ye again?’
‘No’ this time,’ she answered, her heart beginning to beat faster again. In the darkness she could see little of his face, but she could feel his closeness and smell the warm, male scent of him.
He shifted a little towards her. ‘That be grand,’ he said and kissed her, so suddenly and swiftly that she was taken by surprise. Her pulse leapt. Deep within her she felt an abrupt twist of desire. She melted back beneath him, unable to keep any sense of direction with all her senses reeling. His arm was behind her head, supporting her, the other sliding down from her throat to her breast. Through all the thick layers of wool, her nipple felt the brush of his thumb and hardened. She pulled away from him, her breath harsh in her throat.
Somehow she and Dide were lying side by side on the blankets, his arm pillowing her head, his body half covering hers. It was very dark. She could not see his face, but she could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest, the tension in his limbs.
He sighed and rested his head beside hers, inches away. One hand played with her hair, but otherwise he did not touch her. After a moment she relaxed, turning her face towards him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I just canna …’
‘Ye ken it’s always been ye for me, Beau,’ Dide said at last. He did not look at her, speaking with some difficulty. ‘Ever since … I suppose it’s really been since we were bairns, that time we met in Caeryla.’
Isabeau shook her head, surprised. ‘How was I to ken?’ she asked in some indignation. ‘And ye flirting with every pretty lass ye saw!’