Authors: Lucy Monroe
Tags: #Historical Romance, #love story, #warriors, #Paranormal Romance, #supernatural romance, #scotland, #Paranormal, #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Scottish, #Scotland Highlands, #wolves, #highlanders
Their Roman enemies called them Picts, a name accepted by the other peoples of their land and lands south…they called themselves the Chrechte.
Their animal-like affinity for fighting and conquest came from a part of their nature their fully human counterparts did not enjoy. For these fierce people were shape-changers.
The bluish tattoos on their skin were markings given as a right of passage when they made their first shift. Some men had control of that change. Some did not, subject to the power of the full moon until participating in the sacred act of sex. The females of all the races both experienced their first shift into animal form and gained control thereafter with the coming of their first menses.
Some shifted into wolves, others big cats of prey and yet others into the larger birds—the eagle, hawk or raven.
The one thing all Chrechte shared in common was that they did not reproduce as quickly or prolifically as their fully human brothers and sisters. Although they were a formidable race and their cunning enhanced by an understanding of nature most humans could not possess, they were not foolhardy and were not ruled by their animal natures.
One warrior could kill a hundred of his foe, but should she or he die before having offspring, the death would lead to an inevitable shrinking of the race. Some Pictish clans and those recognized by other names in other parts of the world had already died out rather than submit to what they considered the inferior but multitudinous humans around them.
The Faol of Scotland’s Highlands were too smart to face the end of their race rather than blend. These wolf shifters saw the way of the future. In the ninth century
, Keneth MacAlpin ascended to the Scottish throne. He was of Faol
descent through his mother; nevertheless, his human nature had dominated.
He was not capable of “the change,” but that did not stop him from laying claim to the Pictish throne (as it was called then) as well. In order to guarantee his kingship, he betrayed his Faol brethren at a dinner, killing all of the remaining royals of their people—and forever entrenched a distrust of humans by their Chrechte counterparts.
Despite this distrust but bitterly aware of the cost of MacAlpin’s betrayal, the Faol of the Chrechte realized that they could die out fighting an ever increasing and encroaching race of humanity, or they could join the Celtic clans.
As far as the rest of the world knew, what had been considered the Pictish people was no more.
Because it was not in their nature to be ruled by any but their own, within two generations, the Celtic clans that had assimilated the Chrechte were ruled by shape-changing clan chiefs who shared their natures with wolves. Though most of the fully human among them did not know it, a sparse few were trusted with the secrets of their kinsmen. Those that did, were aware that to betray the code of silence meant certain and immediate death.
Stories of other shifter races, the Éan and Paindeal, were told around the campfire, or to the little ones before bed. Since the wolves had not seen a shifter except their own in generations, however, they began to believe the other races only a myth.
But myths did not take to the sky on black wings glinting an iridescent blue under the sun. Myths did not live as ghosts in the forest, but breathing air just as any other man or animal. The Éan were no myth, they were birds with abilities beyond that of merely changing their shape.
Many could be forgiven for believing tales of their prince nothing more than legend. For who had heard of a
man shifting not only into the form of a raven, but that of the mystic dragon from ancient tales as well?
If the dragon were real, then were the
as well? Those whispered about Faol that had defended the race in ancient times, able to shift not only into a wolf, but the fearsome beast: the werewolf.
To abandon one’s sacred mate is to abandon one’s very soul.
AW, FROM THE ORAL TRADITIONS
Sinclair Holding, Highlands of Scotland 1150
, Reign of Dabíd mac Maíl Choluim, King of Scots
ummy, they’re giants!”
It wasn’t her son’s excited shout that sent a shard of pain spiking through Shona’s head, but the sight of soldiers wearing the Sinclair colors approaching at speed on horses every bit as oversized as they were.
And not a one of them was smiling in welcome, either.
The headache had arrived with the large brown wolf, which had paced them for the better part of the morning. Only, the pounding in her head hadn’t left when the beast did.
Terrified the animal would attack, she’d ridden tense in her saddle with a dagger to the ready. It had maintained its distance, however, finally running off just before the noon sun cast its shadow.
Her mind and senses already stretched to the point of exhaustion with what had come before this journey, the
appearance of the wolf had pushed Shona that much nearer collapse.
But she would not give up. Her children’s lives and those of two loyal friends depended on Shona maintaining both sanity and composure.
So, she had taken her daughter back onto her horse from where little Marjory had taken turns riding with Shona’s companions, Audrey and her twin brother, Thomas. And then Shona had continued on as if the wolf had not scared her out of her wits.
Shona had hoped her luck would hold, as it had miraculously for nearly two sennights of their mad dash north, but it was not to be.
They’d reached Sinclair land late the night before, managing somehow to both evade anyone her stepson may have sent after them and avoid the inhabitants of the clan territories she and her small band had passed through.
She had no trouble understanding how her five-year-old son had mistaken the approaching soldiers for giants. Like some of the men from her former clan, these Highlanders would easily stand a head taller, and half again as wide, as any knight who had sworn allegiance to her dead husband.
Considering the horror she’d run from, Shona could wish that these imposing men were of the clan she’d come north to seek refuge with. They were more than capable of protecting her small band, but she had no friends or family among the Sinclairs.
And they weren’t likely to take kindly to what they would perceive as an Englishwoman trespassing without leave on their land. She could but hope the laird would approve safe passage through his lands, if only to get rid of her and her companions.
to make her way to Balmoral Island.
It was the only chance they had at safety, her one hope to preserve her son’s life and her own virtue. Or what was left of it.
There, at least, she had family. Though the relation was somewhat distant and she’d no doubts her arrival would come as something of a shock. She could but pray it was not a wholly unwelcome one.
“They’re not giants, sweeting, merely warriors of the clan that makes these lands their home.” Shona tried to infuse confidence in her tone, while her own mind raced with warnings and worries.
“Really?” Eadan asked, eyes the same gentian blue of his father’s filled with awe.
“These are Highland warriors?” Audrey asked before Shona had the chance to affirm her assertion to her son. “They’re huge.”
“’Tis the way of the Highlands, I suppose.” And among the clans that bordered the Highlands as well, like the one in which she’d grown up.
Audrey gave her twin brother a sideways look. “Perhaps you’ve got more growing to do, but I don’t think you’ll reach their stature, even so.”
Thomas looked chagrined. “You don’t know that.”
Shona couldn’t imagine why they were speculating at all. Thomas was English, just like his sister, children of a lesser baron whose holding bordered her dead husband’s on the west and lay only a few miles from land claimed by Scotland’s king.
Audrey and Thomas no longer had a home to return to—not since their eldest brother had taken over the barony.
Shona’s sleeping daughter stirred in her arms. “Mama, is there giants?”
At three, Marjory was as different as night from day from her five-year-old brother. Petite like Shona, with matching green eyes and red curls, she was quiet-spoken (which was not so much like her mother at all).
Marjory adored the older brother who was big for his age and confident to the point of brashness. So like his father it made Shona’s heart ache, though she’d never let them see it.
“They’re the laird’s guards come to greet us,” she claimed, her voice maintaining a shocking steadiness despite the blatant lie.
One look from her two adult companions left her in no doubt they weren’t fooled by her words. But neither of her children were frightened and that was what mattered.
Shona simply had to believe that the Sinclair was a better man than some that had been in her life. His reputation as a fierce but fair leader even as far south as England had led to her choice to travel on his lands instead of taking a more circuitous route to her final destination.
They rode for another ten minutes before meeting up with the Sinclair warriors.
Shona halted her horse and the rest of her party followed suit.
“Who are you and what are you doing on our land?” Though the big warrior’s words were abrupt and his demeanor nothing less than fierce, Shona felt no fear.
Something about the man speaking made her think he would not hurt them. Perhaps it was the flash of concern in his eyes when he looked at her children. The Sinclair soldier would have been devastatingly handsome but for the garish scar on his cheek, but Shona felt no draw to him.
She had only ever wanted one man in her life, despite having been married to another. And that had not changed. Nor did she believe it ever would. She did not lament her lack of interest in the opposite sex, however.
They could not be trusted and she was better off keeping what was left of her heart for her children and her children alone.
“I am Shona, Lady Heronshire, seeking safe passage through your laird’s lands to visit my family on Balmoral Island.” The words were formal, but she spoke them in flawless Gaelic…her native tongue.
“Did you get that scar in a fight?” Eadan asked in Gaelic before the warrior had an opportunity to reply to Shona’s words.
Audrey gasped, but Shona just sighed. Her son had no cork for the things that came out of his mouth.
The fierce warrior’s attention moved to her five-year-old and he studied Eadan closely for several long moments, Shona growing increasingly nervous with each passing one. Why such an interest in her son?
Surprise flared briefly in his gray gaze before it narrowed in inexplicable speculation. “I did. Do you ride as protector of your mother?”
Shona didn’t understand the man’s reaction to her son, unless it was to the fact that such a small
child spoke Gaelic so well. She’d spoken to both her children in her native tongue since their births and they each communicated equally well in Gaelic and English.
Just as she did.
Her son mayhap even better than she did. His grasp of English exceeded her own, despite her years living in that country.
Eadan puffed up his little boy chest and did his best to frown like the warriors in front of them. “I do.”
“You sound like a Scot, lad, but you dress like a Sassenach.”
“What’s a sassy patch?” Marjory whispered from her perch in Shona’s lap.
“An Englishman,” the big warrior answered, with a barely there smile for her daughter’s interesting pronunciation of the word, proving he’d heard the quietly uttered question.
“Oh.” Pop, Marjory’s thumb went into her mouth. It was a habit Shona and Audrey had worked hard to break her of, but the little girl still sucked her thumb when she was overly tired or nervous.
After two weeks of grueling travel and coming upon men who looked more like giants than soldiers, the tot was no doubt both. Shona sighed again.
This brought the big man’s attention back to her. “I am Niall, second-in-command to the Sinclair laird. My men and I will accompany you to the keep.”
“Thank you.” What Shona really wanted to say was
thank you but no
She’d rather head directly for the island. She was tired of traveling and she wasn’t going to feel safe until she’d gotten the Balmoral laird’s promise of protection for her and her small band.
To refuse the hospitality of the other laird, however, would not only be considered rude, but she’d no doubt they would end up traveling to the keep no matter what she might say on the matter.
She’d learned long ago that some things were beyond her control.
* * *
he keep was a fortress, far superior to that of the
MacLeod holding where she’d grown up and even more formidable than that of her deceased husband. The high wall surrounding the laird’s home and guard towers was stone, though the buildings within were crafted mostly from wood.
The keep itself was on top of a motte, the manmade hill only accessible by a narrow path she just knew Niall was going to tell her they could not take their horses on. Even from this distance, the keep looked big enough to easily accommodate fifty or more in the great hall. The imposing nature of the holding made her wish her family was of the Sinclair clan. She could do naught but hope the Balmorals lived equally as secure.