Kelly Jameson | Provocative Fiction

Kelly Jameson

Provocative Fiction

Excerpt from Book 3, Beneath a Dark Highland Sky

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Edinburgh, Scotland

Late August, 1455

 

It was a bright, hot day when the boy, eight years of age, and his parents approached the steep rise that led to Edinburgh castle.

“Dunna forget what I told ye,” the boy’s mother said.

“Isobel, how could he forget?” the boy’s father remarked. “Ye’ve been through it with him at least a dozen times.” A smile tugged at the corners of Leith Maclean’s mouth, but otherwise a subtle tension played across the rugged chieftain’s handsome, battle-scarred face.

“I ken, Mamma,” the boy said. “I will remember.” He frowned, looking very much like his striking-looking father with his midnight-black hair and flashing amber eyes. “Ye said kings are fickle creatures, and though James the Second is fair-minded, he has a fiery temper. If I make him angry, he may strike me, or worse. He may have me arrested and put in irons in the market square. Or he may nail my ear to a wooden post while e’eryone watches. But I am nae afraid.”

Worry creased Isobel’s pretty face as the horses strained to pull the carriage up the hill to the fortress that sat upon a great rock. “I wish I hadna been born a Seer,” she said, her deep green eyes troubled. “For then our son wouldna ha’e been summoned by a king for his own gifts of prophecy.”

Leith, never afraid to show affection, kissed her softly and stroked her cheek with the back of his knuckles. She grasped his hand, looking at the familiar scars that marked his palm, remembering the sword fight that had nearly cost him his life. Isobel kept her own scars covered beneath long sleeves—burn marks she’d received as a child when her mother had pushed her from their burning croft and lost her own life in doing so.

“But then we may ne’er ha’e met, my love,” he breathed. “Our dreams brought us together, visions that couldna be ignored. We were drawn to each other by some unexplainable force, our destinies entwined.”

Her frown disappeared. “’Tis true.”

“I remember the vera first words ye spoke to me, Isobel. Ye were the only member of clan MacKinnon who didna fear me. Ye were braver than most men I fought beside on the battlefield. Ye said, ‘I am well pleased to meet ye, my lord, even if ye are the devil himself.’” He laughed and kissed her mouth again, the kiss this time as possessive and warm as the day he’d married her. “I am nae so devilish, am I?”

“Oh aye, e’en though ye rescued me from a pile of wood like a guardian angel come on the darkest and coldest of winter nights, yer still a devil….”

Malcolm, sitting across from them, rolled his eyes. “Och, yer nae going to tell me again of how ye rescued her from the flames, are ye Da? I’ve heard that story at least a dozen times. The story of how a dream led ye to travel many hours through a blinding snowstorm to save her life at the vera moment her own clan tried to burn her at the stake. And Mum, yer nae going to tell me again how ye saved Da’s life by removing an arrow from his shoulder?”

“He has yer forthrightness,” Isobel said. “He speaks his mind.”

“I think it is yer frank tongue he possesses.” A smile crested Leith’s lips but his mood turned serious once more. “Malcolm, Edinburgh has a reputation for being the safest place in the Scottish kingdom, but ye’ll ha’e to be vera careful what ye say here, and especially what ye say to the king. Words can be more powerful than clashing swords. Words can start feuds and cost lives.”

Malcolm nodded his dark head.

“Ye ken that dreams and visions can ha’e many interpretations?” Leith continued. “If ye ha’e a vision of the king, and ‘tis nae favorable, dunna share it literally. Dunna tell him exactly what ye ha’e seen. Somehow ye must tell the king what he wants to hear, but ye can stretch the truth and still be tellin’ it.”

“But how will I ken what the king wants to hear?”

A look passed between his parents.

“A king wants to feel important, that he will live fore’er,” Isobel said.

“But no one lives fore’er, Mum,” Malcolm said. “Nae e’en a king.”

“’Tis true. But a king wants to ken that his future is secured. That there will be political stability in the land he rules and he will be popular with the people.” She stroked the boy’s shining, dark hair as the carriage continued to climb the hill, the horses’ hooves striking cobblestones and crumpled bits of peat, sparks arching into the air.

There were others who climbed the hill on foot, and some who headed back toward the bustling town below. Merchants mingled with blacksmiths and goldsmiths, bakers, butchers, bonnet makers and spinners. Threading the crowd occasionally were the king’s ornately dressed men-at-arms and their plumed horses.

“Malcolm, soon we will be separated for a short time. Yer Da and I will be brought to the banqueting hall while ye’ll be shown to the king’s royal apartments. James has become fearful of those around him and has brought fortune tellers and astrologers from all across the great land of Scotland to divine his future. He no longer leaves the divining of what is to come solely to his own royal astrologers.”

 “Is the king afraid because his own father was stabbed to death in the friary at Perth when James was only six?” Malcolm asked. “He was two years younger than I am now when he lost his Da. I heard the tale. As James waited to cross the Forth on his way to a Christmas celebration, an auld Seer warned him if he crossed the water, he wouldna return south alive. Mayhap the king was thinking of roast partridge and custard tarts, for he got two more warnings but paid no heed to the auld woman. As e’eryone kens, he stayed on in Perth and was killed by assassins in the presence of Queen Joan.” 

“Surely to suffer such a tragedy at such a tender age has affected him greatly,” Isobel said. “Perhaps that’s why he seeks out Seers now, and why he has his horoscope cast, in the hopes of avoiding the same fate that befell his Da.”

Leith looked thoughtful. “James the Second is confident at the moment. Only a few months ha’e passed since he struck a great blow against the Black Douglases and finally defeated them at the Battle of Arkinholm. The Black Douglases and the Red Douglases were at each other’s throats, fighting opposite the return of a bend in the river Esk. The Black Douglases had lost their castle at Abercorn, and men were deserting their side to join the Red Douglases and the king.

“King James the Second has condemned the Earl of Douglas and his mother and surviving brother as traitors, and their vast estates are to be forfeited to the Crown. The surviving brother, John Douglas, ninth Earl of Douglas and Lord of Balvenie, has fled into English exile. He hides among the Sassenach.”

“Why does the king seek to ken his future now, when the tide has turned in his favor, and he has defeated the Black Douglases?” Malcolm asked.

“Like most kings—and most kings’ enemies —he is ambitious,” Leith said. “Ambition is nae a bad thing, but it is beguiling. A man can take it too far and then it can swallow him up like a great, dark loch if he is nae careful. ‘Tis all too often that men keen for power are short on conscience and compassion.”

“So the Black Douglases are too eager for power? I ken the lullaby, for the Sassenach ha’e always feared the Black Douglas.” Malcolm hummed and then sang softly:

 

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall nae get ye.

 

“And now a Black Douglas hides among them,” Malcolm said. “I wouldna run away. I would ne’er hide among the Sassenach. I would face my enemies like my Da does. I would smote them with my mighty sword.”

“Yer a vera brave boy,” Isobel said. “Brave like yer Da. But ye’d be wise to remember that bravery and compassion should go hand-in-hand. A wise man kens that nae all gains come by the point of a sword.”

“Yer Mum is wise. Be in no haste to draw yer sword, son. So that when ye do draw it, it shall be powerful indeed.”

“But I want to be a great fighter, nae a Seer who charts horoscopes and tells futures for silver pennies like a shriveled, auld woman!”

“The gift of the Sight is mysterious,” Isobel said. “It has chosen ye, for the time being, and ‘tis something ye ha’e to learn to live with, while ye ha’e it. Ye may nae always ha’e it. I dunna ha’e so many visions now that I am aulder.”

“Ye can be a Seer and a great fighter,” Leith said, his amber eyes carrying the same intensity as his son’s. “If ye will it so. In fact, yer gift could aid ye before a battle. But ye must always rely on yer instincts and judgments of a situation first. And surround yerself with good, loyal soldiers and war advisors.”

“I will be a great fighter, Da. I will make ye proud.”

“I am proud of ye now, lad.”

Sea birds screeched as they stretched their graceful wings high above the cliffs and floated on the wind. Malcolm began to hum again as he watched them. Then his gaze shifted to the town bunched below the top of the craggy ridge and the great Abbey of the Holyrood and the rocky summit known as Arthur’s Seat.

Malcolm had heard during the spring festival of Beltane, young girls in Edinburgh bathed their faces in the dew of the slopes of the hill that faced Holyrood to make themselves more beautiful. That was silly. He smiled as he thought of his wee, blonde-haired sister, Andreana, who would also think such a thing silly. Andreana had begged to come on this trip to see the king but was told she was too small and would go another time. Andreana always wanted to do everything Malcolm did.

The castle they approached guarded the route to the north, with the river at its feet and easy access to the south. He marveled that the town was not very wide. It was longer than it was wide, and mostly hills. At this great height, it reminded him of a beehive with its many small, crowded booths and people darting in and out like bees. There were tenements and shops stacked and squeezed together along the street. Peddlers and country people struggled with the wares humped on their backs; others led tired-looking horses piled with merchandise to their destinations.

Malcolm could see the market cross, a symbol of the king’s peace, presiding over the great marketplace where goods were weighed and measured, prices set, and offenses punished. As their carriage had passed through the town, his ears had rung with the cries of market sellers and the noisy debates between buyers and sellers while his eyes took in the rich assortment of goods for sale—cloth, silk ribbon, belts, rings of gold and silver, curds and milk, berries, nuts, figs and grapes, wine and bread, wool, hides, and spices. He’d held his nose because of the great stink from gutted fish and freshly slaughtered livestock; even burning incense from a nearby chapel could not disguise the awful smell.  

On the clogged streets their carriage had nearly collided with a gaunt brewer struggling with a large container of sloppy ale and then a stout, grey-robed friar who had been so intent on his preaching he had not seen their horses until he’d almost been dashed beneath their hooves. Malcolm had expressed surprise at the pious man’s keen ability to swear and his father had laughed.

“Some monks spew profanity as skillfully and as often as they speak psalms of comfort,” Leith said.

The view from atop the great rock was stunning under the bright blue sky and Malcolm felt very small. The huge stone castle seemed as if it had simply fallen from the clouds one day and landed there, in its rightful place, guarding Scotland from threats. It was protected by sheer cliffs on three sides and access was limited by the steep road on the eastern side of the rock.

The river below meandered and caught the sun as a sharp eastern breeze ruffled the sails of various vessels floating in the waters of the port. Malcolm wished he were sailing now with his father instead of going to see James of the Fiery Face. He knew a lot about the galleys his father owned, which had changed little from Viking times. They had square sails, were propelled by oars, and were shallow of draft and high of stem and stern. Malcolm loved to sail them. He was good at sailing. He enjoyed the rhythmic exercise of rowing the oars and chanting, the sound of the sea, and the feel of the salt spray in the air.

He allowed a small, childish sigh to escape his lips as his eyes fell once more upon the market square below. Malcolm had heard tales of offenders placed in the pillory or forced to wear iron collars about their necks. Some were made to sit in a cuckstool and were pelted with eggs, rotten vegetables, and dung by jeering townspeople. Thieves might have their ears nailed to a wooden post or be branded on the face—scarred and judged for the rest of their lives. Malcolm wondered if a witch had ever been burned in the marketplace square. “Mum, do they burn male witches, too?”

“There is always a risk of danger when people dunna understand yer gift,” Isobel said. “My life was almost ended by my own clan because they feared my gift, e’en though I helped them when they were sick or injured with my knowledge of healing. They thought me some kind of demon. Their real fear was I might see them in my dreams and visions and foretell their deaths. Fearful people try to kill and bury what they dunna understand.”

Isobel paused, Leith’s eyes tenderly searching her face. “‘Tis nae a common practice, Malcolm, but men accused of practicing charms on a king are sometimes burned at the stake. That is why the other fortune tellers summoned by the king will spin and weave shimmering lies about his future. They dunna wish to displease him and meet a gruesome end. They seek favor and gain and will ne’er tell the king anything unpleasant. And neither should ye, no matter what ye ha’e seen in a vision.”

“Perhaps they should be called fortune hunters,” Malcolm said.

“Aye,” Isobel replied. “Indeed. For they practice little more than coggery, illusions using mirrors, bowls of water and smoke, polished stones, crystals, or dice. Some claim they can read the future by reading the stars in the sky. They draw symbols on parchment and claim to chart a person’s future. They merely hope to please the king and increase their own coffers. Dunna trust anyone, and choose yer words wisely when the king asks ye to speak.

“If ye havena seen his death in a vision, tell him so. And if ye ha’e seen his death, tell him only vaguely what ye ha’e seen. Make it like a puzzle, or a riddle. Dunna tell him exactly what ye’ve seen or dreamed, and ne’er speak of a king’s death. If he asks ye what yer vision means, tell him only the good that can be found in it.”

“’Tis a lot to remember.” Malcolm frowned. “Did the king invite me to Edinburgh because he heard of my vision before the battle of Arkinholm, with the Black Douglases and the Red Douglases?”

“Aye,” Leith said. “Yer dream of a battle between a blood red sky and a black sky, with the red sky being victorious, and the bloody head of Archibald Douglas, Earl of Moray, being presented to the king after the battle, spread far and wide. Indeed, it reached the ears of the king before the battle and gave him confidence. He wants to meet the bairn of such great visions.”

“I willna be a bairn much longer,” Malcolm said. “Soon I will be a man.”

“Yea, soon ye’ll be a man,” Isobel said, smoothing a lock of hair from his forehead. “But such an awful thing for a child to dream about. Ye should be dreamin’ of riding yer horse in wide summer glens bursting with blooming heather, of hunting and fishing, and swimming in sparkling lochs when the sun is high and the day is bright. Nae of men’s heads on pikes delivered to kings.”

They had finally reached the top of the hill. Malcolm took a last look at the town below, noting the close-pressed houses that seemed to stretch toward the sky. He was glad he lived in a castle in the Highlands, far from activity and crowds, where there were thick woods to explore with wind-buckled trees and lochs that mirrored the ever-changing skies and sloping hills to climb. There was the sea, and sea caves and beaches, where he could find treasures and feel the wind and sun upon his face.

They approached the gatehouse and were halted by guards who demanded to know their identities and their business.

“I am Leith Maclean. With me is my wife Isobel and my son, Malcolm. We are here to see the king upon his invitation.”

Soon the carriage moved through the gatehouse arch. In the courtyard, a throng of the king’s richly dressed men-at-arms marched toward them.

“Remember too, dunna stare at the king’s birthmark,” Isobel whispered. “‘Tis said to be bright red like an amethyst from his forehead to his chin.”

Malcolm nodded as his Mum clasped his hands in reassurance. He lowered his voice so only his parents could hear his words. “’Tis nae a man that will kill James the Second in five summers,” he said. “’Tis a lion.”

The guards did not catch Isobel’s quick intake of breath as Malcolm was parted from them and taken away to be presented to James of the Fiery Face.

            

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