Kelly Jameson

Provocative Fiction

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across a dark highland shore cover 3 8 2015

Read a free excerpt from Kelly's newest Highlands romance, ACROSS A DARK HIGHLAND SHORE below. ACROSS A DARK HIGHLAND SHORE is book #2 in her hot Highlands romance series.

 

Across a Dark Highland Shore

By Kelly Jameson, author of SPELLBOUND

 

Text copyright © 2015 by Kelly Jameson

All Rights Reserved

Book cover image: romancenovelcovers.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, incidents or locales is entirely coincidental.

No distribution or reproduction is permitted without the written permission of the author. For more information, write keljameson@yahoo.com.

 

From rocky Duard, from Mingarry grey,

The terror of the clans has passed away.

They sleep, the plaided warriors of Maclean,

Where dust of battle may not rise again.

Sheathed is the claymore,

vanished from the era

The white-winged pride of Ocean Chivalry;

Hushed is the slogan, bloodless flow the waves,

And Death seems buried in those island Graves!

M. Macdonald

 

Chapter 1

 

The Highlands

New Year’s Eve, 1446

 

Isobel MacKinnon could not recall a winter that had been so cruel.

For weeks now it had been storms and raw winds hammering from the north, winds that snatched one’s breath and made one’s bones ache with misery. She’d known since she was a child that north winds portended endings and separations, and there had already been far too many of those events.

Snow and ice descended with bitter fury on valley, wooded glen, and moor, leaving all that lay outside the MacKinnon keep in a quiet, brittle stillness. Nothing seemed to move or breathe. Inside the keep, quite the opposite was true—heather ale and whisky flowed warmly in the great hall as clan members raised their cups in loud, drunken celebration. Even in their defeated state, they shouted the clan’s ancient war cry, “Remember the death of Alpin!”—a rallying chant about the King of Dalriada, who had died in 841 and whose son had united the Picts and Scots those many years ago.

Isobel watched waves of swirling smoke rise from the kitchens in preparation for feasting they could ill afford after so much loss. Even in kinder seasons, there was a need to scrape the porridge drawer and measure the grain with care, but the feasting tonight would be enjoyed with reckless abandon.

It was Hogmanay, the last day of the year, and Isobel quietly went about her duties, having learned long ago to avoid crossing paths with anyone, especially Glynis and Forba, her boisterous, older half-sisters. It was so dark outside that the candlelight hardly allowed one to see the length of the great hall. Boys who fetched firewood were like shadows darting about, like the flash and streak of silver fish barely visible in a swift-moving burn. Rosy cheeked men and women played dice in the meager light of the fat-dripping candles on the chandeliers, occasionally clapping their hands together in glee or shouting insults at the other players.

Isobel was bemused. There was nothing to celebrate this frigid, barren winter. The clan was in chaos. There were too many widows and fatherless children now, too many men lying cold in the clan cemetery on the hill.

Only weeks ago, she’d watched, shivering violently, as her own father’s body was burned on a funeral pyre. A small procession of mourners had been led to the chapel, and they’d walked three times sunwards around it to keep the chief’s spirit safe in his afterlife. A few women, mourning veils hiding their faces, wailed the Coronach. Isobel did not want to think about what the spectacle must have looked like from beneath a veil—shadows and bright flames making it all seem even more unreal and otherworldly.

As hungry flames erased Brodie MacKinnon’s physical being from the world forever, sparks leaped into the night, disappearing beneath bare, gnarled tree limbs and scattered stars that were far too bright. His life, his memories, nothing left. And with his departure, Isobel lost whatever little protection she’d had from her pitiless sisters.

The decimated clan had made only a half-hearted attempt at a lykewake, the mourning feast between a death and a burial, showing great disrespect and shameful drunkenness. They made a bigger celebration now for Hogmanay, using up precious stores they would need for the long, difficult months ahead.

Brodie’s wishes were that he be buried at sea, but the cold and ice had made that impossible. It wasn’t just that he had no wish to be encased in a linen shroud that was then sewn in deerskin and placed in a wooden coffin. He hadn’t wanted to be buried in the ground because of the wolves. He had a fear of the unclean, brutish beasts. So it had been fire.

Isobel did not like fire. As a small child, she had barely escaped being burned alive in her village croft when it was struck by a jagged finger of lightning. After the fire, she’d dreamt about it for many moons. She’d awake screaming, flailing her little arms, still feeling like she was stumbling through darkness, inhaling gutters of smoke. Her mother had managed to push her through the door to safety but hadn’t lived herself. Isobel had been eight summers at the time. She still had nightmares about reaching her tiny hand out to her mother just before the flames swallowed her up forever. So in the end, flame had swallowed both her mother and her father.

Isobel’s hip and left arm bore angry scars from the flames, and she was conscious about keeping them covered. Though ugly, the marks on her body were a constant reminder of her mother’s selfless act, of the one person who had truly loved her. After the fire, Brodie had taken her in and allowed her to dwell among the servants of the keep, much to the chagrin of Glynis and Forba. Her father had been far from perfect, but he had been brave, more so in his last days. And he had suffered much in those last days, mostly due to the actions of her half-brother Calum.

There had been many deaths the summer before Brodie’s death. All because of the treachery of Calum. He’d been buried at sea during the hot summer and it had not been a well-attended burial. Who was left, and who had cared?

Isobel hadn’t known her half-brother very well, but she’d been in the gardens and had seen him fall from the tower. She would never forget the sight, or the sounds of his screams, as he fell. He was a bastard son of Brodie’s, a madman who had tried to usurp their father’s power in his last days, had gone so far as to kidnap Brodie and imprison him in the clan’s own fetid dungeons before he died. Isobel had brought Brodie food in secret and kept an even bigger secret: she’d helped him escape. But it was too late.

While Brodie had been chained in his own dungeons, Calum and his devout circle of mad followers had led an ill-fated and unsanctioned attack on the powerful MacAlisters to the south, with whom they’d been at peace for many years, and he’d placed the blame for the attack falsely on Brodie.

Kade MacAlister had come back from Ireland after a three-year absence to find his brother Niall and his fiancée Fenalla dead as a result of the attack, burned to death in a croft.[1]

Too much fire. Too much death. Having lost her mother the same way, Isobel could understand his pain. Kade, a warrior with a fierce reputation and the newly appointed MacAlister chieftain, vowed swift revenge. When he learned that Calum had been responsible for the attack on his clan, and not Brodie, he came after Calum…and events were set in motion that led to Calum’s fall from the tower that day. Kade MacAlister was a fair man and had not slaughtered Brodie for his son’s treachery; he had not punished the father for the child’s sins. But Brodie was old and weak and had died the winter after Calum’s fall from the tower.

Clan MacKinnon had never recovered from Calum’s foul deeds. Leadership among the MacKinnons was now practically non-existent. The men who yet lived fought amongst themselves as the keep fell into sloth and disrepair, grappling over sour wine and heaping platters of meats. Soon, there were not enough platters to go around, some of the women and children going hungry as a result.

Isobel swept rotting rushes from the flagstones while the other girls, who were supposed to be helping with the odious task, drank ale and cavorted in the dark shadows with some of the lads. Yet Isobel was thankful that she was practically invisible to those around her, including the sulky, ill-tempered maid with whom she currently shared a bed in the servants’ quarters, among rolls of handspun yarn and chests of linen. Isobel was missed unless they tripped over her or decided to poke fun at her. Her fingers were often dirty and chafed from carting firewood and peat about, sweeping rushes, and washing linens, and in the warmer months from pulling herbs from the damp ground, leaving her clothing stained.

All of her garments were common and worn. The only special thing about her was her gift. She had the Sight, but had kept it hidden for as long as she could. Until she’d revealed a vision of a bloody battle and many deaths to her friend Wynda, the blacksmith’s garrulous daughter. Wynda had been the only person she’d told.

After the horrible attack on their keep by the MacAlisters, Wynda had told others about Isobel’s vision and they began to look at Isobel, they began to see her, they began to come to her for healing and because they thought she could tell their futures, which made her uncomfortable. Then they began to blame her. If she had foreseen the bloody battle with Kade MacAlister and his men, why had she not warned the clan?

Isobel didn’t always know what her visions and her dreams meant. So how could she warn anyone of anything? She was frightened of her gift. Each night before she fell asleep, she prayed she would not dream. But often she did. Not only of fire and death but of a tall warrior on horseback aiming an arrow at her heart—a great warrior with midnight-black hair and a sprig of crowberry on his plaid, which was red with thin stripes of green and blue. In her dreams, the warrior with intense eyes seemed to step from the blackest well of night.

With word of her vision, the whispers truly began, the furtive looks, the fear reflected back at her through her clan members’ eyes. Witch. Witch.

Stories about her began to circulate, even beyond her own clan. Despite the many times she’d healed her sisters’ ailments and spoken charms over them, her sisters now openly accused her of being a servant of the devil. They increased her tasks and their taunts, and Isobel withdrew more and more into herself. She began to realize that her previous invisibility had been a blessing.

Even now, as music and laughter flowed, as those in the great hall consumed barley bannocks with knobs of butter and salt, cheeses, roast beef, ale, and whisky with no thought of tomorrow, Isobel felt a gnawing fear. A premonition. Children fenced with sticks as if they were swords. Red wool plaids swirled dizzily about her. Two men brawled, bloodying each other’s noses, and then they shook hands and drank whisky together, laughing and clapping each other on the back. A few moments later, they were brawling again.

Isobel was trodden on and laughed at as voices cheered and pottery was thrown and broken. She was poked and pinched. It was so cold she could see her own breath. Och, would she never be warm and well fed again?

Her heart hurt for the cottagers who braved the bitter, black night to make their way to the keep but were turned away empty-handed by fat men with greasy lips and bloated bellies. The faces of the little boys and girls made her especially sad. They stood in the freezing night, their cheeks splotched red with cold and their breath making tiny ghost clouds. Though they were given nothing, they sang anyway, their innocent, warm voices shimmering in the air.

‘Twas the first year Isobel could remember that the Hogmanay tradition of giving bannocks to everyone who came to the keep was not kept. ‘Twas a small comfort, and if Brodie were still alive, he would’ve seen to it that all—from the smallest child to the most wizened and bent-backed villager—were given bannocks for good luck.

Isobel understood comforts. There were so few in her world that she clutched at small things, safe things, like the necklace and pendant hidden beneath her gown. Shortly before he’d died, Brodie had given her the necklace. “I should’ve given it to ye long ago, lass,” he’d said. “It was a trinket I bought from an auld gypsy who came through the village once, selling such things. I always felt sorry for the gypsies, wandering about the lonely moors, selling things like baskets, trinkets, and heather, which we can tug from the ground ourselves. The gypsy was stoop-shouldered and hungry, and carried all she had in life on her small back. She came walkin’ out of the mist of the glen almost like a wraith. She had this necklace. I was drawn to it and bought it and gave it to yer mum. ‘Twas a small thing but it made yer mum so happy.” He sighed. “Would that I coulda given her more. But love doesna always come to us on our own terms. We have to decide whether or no’ to accept it into our lives, to risk all for it, when it does come.

“The gypsy claimed the stone in the necklace was charmed, a love pendant of sorts. An auld Viking charm that had been around for many years. After yer mum died in the fire, I found it in a trunk that was half charred and put it away and didna think of it for a long time. I missed yer mum sorely and e’ery reminder of her hurt. ‘Tis a worthless chunk of stone, but like I said, yer mum loved it. So I want ye to have it. Ye should have it.

“Ye see now why yer sisters hate you so, Isobel? ‘Tis because ye are different. Because yer mum wasna my wife. And, I fear, ‘tis partly because yer sisters are spiteful, petty creatures by nature. They dunna make me proud. Ye are no’ like them.” 

“Why are ye giving me the necklace now?”

“I fear my days grow short. If I should die soon, ye must no’ be sad. Ye must remember that the young shouldna be buried with the auld. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, Isobel. It is too late for me to make amends for all of them. I know yer life has no’ been easy. I hope this necklace, which I advise ye to keep hidden at all costs from yer sisters, even while ye wear it, will give ye some small measure of peace. When ye look at it, I hope ye will still believe, a little bit, in hope and love, no matter what yer future brings. Do ye ken? Will ye take it?”

 “Yea, father.” Isobel remembered stroking and admiring the deep blue stone and then looking into his tired face. “Father, sometimes things like stones can show us things we canna learn elsewhere. There are lessons in fists of cloud and the bunched backs of hills, even in the reflections of deep lochs.”

“And sometimes, little one, we dunna need such things as stones and charmed pendants to make our own magic or to bring us love. Ye’d be wise to remember that, too.” He’d smiled at her and ruffled her hair.

A vision of her lovely mum’s face rose next in her mind. “Isobel, my heart, always have hope,” her mum had said, pushing a blonde curl from Isobel’s forehead. “For a person without any hope is like a great, dead oak tree, withered and dark like the barest of winters, unaware that a green spring lies just ahead. Child, dunna be like a person who is dead before they are dead.”

Isobel yelped in pain as something hit her head and she was brought back to the present. She turned, knocking over a cup of whisky on the great table. On the floor at her feet was a small, sharp piece of flint that someone had thrown at her.

She rubbed her scalp and tried to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks.

“Dirty hag!” one of the drunken men yelled. He was joined by others.

The cup that now lay on its side, its amber contents on the floor, belonged to Bothen, a beast of a man with shoulder-length graying hair, a bushy beard, cruel, dark eyes and bulging arms. He’d declared himself clan leader three days ago by killing two weaker men who had also been keen on taking the honor.

Bothen stared at her as blood from the meat he ate dribbled into his knotted beard. When she stood there mutely, Bothen rose from the great table. He waved the young cup bearer away, a greasy chicken leg in his fat fingers. “Nay. She will do it. Get me another whisky, hag, and be quick about it!”

When she still didn’t move her feet to do his bidding, he shoved her. She would’ve managed to stay on her feet but her sister Glynis stuck out her booted foot and tripped her. Isobel hit the stone floor hard, shielding her fall with her arms.

Laughter seemed to echo around the great hall. Ignoring jabs of pain, Isobel tried to get up but a foot on her back kept her firmly in place in her ignoble position. It belonged to her other sister Forba, who was as stout and ugly faced as Glynis. Both women openly vied for Bothen’s affections though Bothen would never marry either of them. Bothen had already had three wives; all had died mysteriously not long after marrying him. Isobel remembered that before the meal, Glynis had been combing Bothen’s hair beside a window, picking out lice before the winter light faded. Forba had pouted because she’d wanted the task.

“Dirty, worthless hag,” Forba said. “I am no’ afraid of ye.”

“Let me up, Forba. I have no quarrel with ye.” Isobel felt a trickle of blood on her face from where the stone had slashed her tender scalp.

“Nay. I willna. Ye belong below the rest of us, slithering on yer belly like a serpent. After all, ye have the Sight. Yer a servant of the devil. They say ye had no mum but sprung like a ragged tooth from a rock. They say yer a witch.”

Forba pressed her foot harder onto the small of Isobel’s small back. Isobel could see that the back of her sister’s well-made dress was peat-stained, no doubt from lying on the peat pile while entertaining one of the stable boys. She often bragged of how easy it was to seduce a man by spreading one’s legs, even with a face like her own. “How’s the view down there, shrew?” She cackled.

“I had a mum, Forba. She was kind, as ye will ne’er be. She was killed in a fire, as ye well know. I am no’ a witch! I am yer sister!”

Forba frowned and the heavy, white paint that was caked at the corners of her mouth cracked and split. “Yer no true sister of mine,” she hissed. “My father couldna keep his wandering cock from beneath the village whores’ skirts. That doesna make ye my sister.” Little, white flecks of paint from the creases in her angry face floated to the ground like snowflakes beside Isobel’s head. Forba finally took her foot from Isobel’s back and kicked her in the side. It took all of Isobel’s strength not to cry out.

Bothen grew bored and much to the crowd’s delight, covered himself with the dark hide of a bull, the horns and hooves still attached. Forba kept her foot on Isobel’s back as Bothen danced around, lads struck at him with sticks in mock battles, and everyone repeated a Gaelic chant that increased in intensity. The hideous spectacle was surreal and frightening from Isobel’s viewpoint on the floor, and several times Bothen’s heels came perilously close to her head. Once the house and its occupants were blessed, Bothen removed the hide, and it was singed in a vain attempt to bestow purity on the keep.

Glynis now stood next to Forba, her girth straining the fabric of her dark, wine-spilled gown. She leaned down and yanked Isobel’s golden braid so that Isobel had to sit up, clutching her side in pain from where she’d been kicked. Isobel’s hair was neatly woven into a single, glossy braid that hung down her back. It was her pride and joy, for she believed her face was rather ordinary. Many of the Mackinnon clan members had brown eyes the color of heather leaves, whereas Isobel’s were deep green and framed with dark lashes. Her olive skin had a healthy, bronze glow in the summer months from spending time outdoors in the gardens and on the moors, quite the opposite of the women with perfect lily-pale complexions who were content to spend their time indoors sewing, spinning, and cooking.

Glynis’ face was so close that Isobel could smell her sour breath and her sweat. Glynis did not believe in freshening herself with water often, or putting crushed rosemary in her hair to make it sweet-scented. Nor did she wash her hands before and after meals, as was the custom. Och, but she smelled worse than the dung heap in the courtyard. Her nose sat crookedly on her face, giving her a menacing appearance, for when she was a child, it had been broken in a fight with a boy.

Isobel knew that Glynis sometimes used cuttlefish or chalk in an attempt to soften her complexion, and she darkened her lashes with soot, but it didn’t help. Once she’d shaved her eyebrows like the ladies of high fashion, but her face had become even more frightening. One could not simply demand poise and pretty delicacy from a harsh, unkind face. Yet despite her faults, Isobel believed if Glynis could learn to show kindness, it would change her face and she would not be considered so ugly. ‘Twas her cruelty beyond anything else that made her unattractive. Kindness, smiling, laughter—such things transformed a face. Especially kindness.

“Yer dirty with sin, Isobel. Ye pick herbs and tell future times and have visions and stink of peat. Yer a witch.”

There were loud taunts all about Isobel now, followed by a commotion in the front hall. Glynis did not release Isobel’s hair from her beastly fist as she looked toward the front of the great room, and firelight glinted off the silver rings above her thick knuckles. Isobel wondered where she’d gotten the rings. Had they belonged to one of Bothen’s former wives? Glynis had also dressed her coarse hair with an expensive, red ribbon with delicate, picoted edging; she’d bragged to everyone that it was made of fine Italian silk.

Bothen had forgotten his spilled cup of whisky and now he greeted the villager who’d brought a burning conflagration into the hall, much to everyone’s delight. There was a tradition on Hogmanay—half of a herring barrel was filled with wood shavings and tar and was nailed onto a carrying post. Then it was hoisted onto the burly shoulders of a local villager and the barrel was lit with flame and carried around the village to the keep.

The man carrying it presented a smoldering ember from the barrel to Bothen, to bring good luck to the keep for the year ahead. Everyone cheered. Everyone except Isobel. There is no more good luck to be had for this clan.

It was time to carry the burning barrel to a hill near the old stone chapel, set it down, and pile wood until there was a blaze of fire that lit the night with its ferocity. When the barrel finally fell to the ground, it would signal the start of the New Year. The flaming embers would be snatched up by onlookers and used to kindle a special New Year fire at their homes, kept for luck, or sent to family or friends who had moved away.

“Tell my future, witch!” Glynis said. “Tell it now!Shall I marry the handsome and big-pricked Bothen?” She grinned at Bothen, who had returned to demand that his whisky cup be refilled.

Isobel gasped as a vision of Bothen’s last wife floated before her. Grear, a timid and kind woman, was a cousin to Bothen. After they’d married, she cowered whenever he was near. It was Grear’s sweet face Isobel saw now, liberally painted with white paint, and it was twisted in pain. Grear raged and clutched at her throat, gasping for breath, pointing at Bothen. Grear’s face became Glynis’ face before the vision faded.

“I asked ye to tell my future, witch! Will I marry Bothen?”

“Nay, no’ if I marry him first!” Forba cried. “Ye’ve grown far too fat and lazy fer his tastes, ye waddling sow!”

Glynis looked as if she would strike Forba. Isobel felt nothing but contempt for Glynis, who’d shown her nary a kindness, but she’d just seen her death in a vision. And while silence had always been one of her only defenses, she needed to warn her. No one deserved to die a death like that at the hands of a horrible man like Bothen. “Glynis, I tell ye, if ye marry Bothen, ye shall die by poison. Ye shall suffer the same horrible, painful death as his first three wives. He disguised the poison in the white paint they rubbed on their faces.”

There were gasps and murmurs all around. Forba started to scratch at her face. Glynis froze, half-frightened by the sudden intensity in Isobel’s face. The old castle bard, who had been playing loudly during the evening meal and afterward, silenced his clarsach, the clumsy twang of his notes fading into silence.

“Witch, yer accusing me of murder by poison?” Bothen sneered. “’Tis a most serious accusation.” He scratched at his natty, tangled beard. “’Tis true I killed two foolish men who vied with me to be leader of this clan. But kill my poor, adoring wives? I’d say ye’d ha’e to prove that.”

Glynis frowned in confusion. Fear flickered briefly in her dark eyes before cruelty returned. She smiled at Isobel, but there was no warmth in it. “Ye lie, witch, and most viciously. ‘Tis because ye’ve always hated me. Ye’ve always been jealous of me because I was auld Brodie’s favorite daughter and he ne’er cared a whit for ye. Yer just one of his village whore’s bastards. Ye’ll pay for yer lies. Ye’ll be the one to suffer, no’ me.”

She spat on the floor near Isobel’s face. “Yer own mother died in a fire. Since yer a witch, that would be a fitting death for ye as well. What think ye, Bothen the Handsome? Shall we greet the New Year with a witch burning? Would that be an appropriate punishment for her lies?”

Bothen’s eyes lit with hate. “I will bind her myself. Bring me some rope.” They were close to the great hearth and Bothen wiped the sweat from his craggy brow with his plaid. A skinny deerhound wandered over looking for scraps in the rushes and Bothen lifted his patched, leather brogan and kicked it away. It yelped piteously, and Isobel had another vision. This time she saw Bothen lying on his face, blood pooling and smearing the pristine snow beneath him.

“Bothen, dunna do this! If ye do, ye’ll die by an arrow in yer back. Ye’ll be dead and cold within the hour. Ye willna live to greet the New Year!” An icy tingle raced up Isobel’s spine. This wasna happening.

She had barely protested when a rope was brought and Bothen lifted her roughly from the floor. He lashed her hands tightly together despite her struggles, and the taunts grew more vicious and depraved.

“Who would dare meddle with me, witch? Who would be addled enough to put an arrow in my back? How convenient that ye make up lies to try to save yer own scrawny hide.”

Isobel struggled against her ropes. “Nay, ‘tis no lie! I dunna know what it means, but I saw it! I saw yer future if ye go through with this horrible deed...”

Bothen frowned and turned to the crowd. “Mayhap we should cut the hag’s hair? I heard it said that once ye cut a witch’s hair, her power shrivels away.” He pulled a sharp dirk from his boot. “This will do.” He caressed the black-handled blade and it glinted in the firelight. Isobel herself had a black-handled knife in her room, but she used it only for peaceful purposes, such as pulling wild chamomile from the ground in warmer months. Bothen’s knife was different; it held a black aura of killing and death.

“Nay!” Isobel cried. “Nay, dunna! I see yer death within the hour!”

“Listen to the witch beg, plead, and lie,” Glynis snarled. “Yer pathetic. And now, well, Brodie’s no’ here to protect ye. Tell me, sweet half-sister, do ye see yer own flesh burning black and charred within the hour? For it shall be so. Just like yer whore of a mother. Her flesh burned and sputtered, too. She got what she deserved, and so will ye.”

“Glynis of the Fat Arse, be quiet and hold the bitch down,” Bothen said.

Glynis practically purred. “Bothen, ye may well insult my fat arse, but I know how ye like it.”

Bothen squeezed her ample buttocks and laughed as men and women crowded around Isobel and pressed her small form to the floor. Isobel stared at the sooty beams away above her head that echoed with the chatter of the crowd until someone pushed her head to the side. Her cheek rested on rotting rushes. More rotting rushes were kicked into her face and hair, and Isobel gagged. A few women did not jeer, for shame or sympathy or simply because they’d lost so much in the past few months they had no fight left in them. They watched as if they saw nothing, their eyes dead and wooden from pain and loss.

Bothen leaned down, grabbed the braid near her neck, and swiftly sawed off the golden knot with his dirk. It was the same blade he’d used to kill the two men who’d recently challenged his leadership of the clan—men who were unlike Bothen; men who would’ve been kinder to their suffering clansmen.

Isobel fought the bile rising in her throat as Bothen held up his prize for all to see. “Behold, the long, golden braid of a witch!” There were cheers all around.

The tears flowed freely now and Isobel did not try to hold them back.

Bothen yanked her to her feet and she was pulled outside into the stinging cold. He still clutched her severed braid in his chapped, meaty fist. The jeering, blood-thirsty crowd, led by Glynis, Forba, and Bothen, followed the burning barrel through the spitting snow and ice as Isobel was carried along to the hill by the chapel. There were people behind her and pressing in on both sides, sneering and scoffing and forming a tight box of angry flesh about her.

The wind was biting and harsh, and snow had piled against the outside of the chapel. The grey stone of the small building was forbidding without the light of candles in the branched chandeliers within, without voices raised high and joyously in song, or the ringing of bells. Inside, the mural paintings with stories from scripture, the carved statues of saints, and the elaborate stone tombs of past chieftains and nobles lay in chill silence. The villagers and clan members were frenzied with fear. Isobel knew then that fear caught and spread more quickly than fire.

Several men erected a stake and a rope was placed about her neck to hold her straight, to keep her from crouching down and hastening her death. They wanted the fire to climb slowly. They wanted to see her scream and suffer, despite all she had done to help them with her knowledge of healing. Their fear was greater than their appreciation of her skills. Still, she would no’ regret all that her mother had taught her before she’d died, about herbs and potions, poultices and charms. About strength and courage. She had not survived the years after her mother’s death to face her own without dignity.

Though she trembled, Isobel looked straight into the faces of the mob. She thought of those she’d helped, of the little clay models of arms and legs, the votive offerings she’d made in the chapel in the name of the sufferers so that God might relieve them of their ailments. She thought about the charms she’d spoken, the herbs that had eased their suffering, the ear aches, toothaches, and stomachaches she’d chased away, the poultices applied to ragged sword, arrow, and axe wounds after battles, the rags applied to feverish brows.

“Burn the witch!” they began to chant. “Burn the witch! The witch will suffer!” Wynda, one of the only friends Isobel had ever had, was among those screaming for Isobel’s death by fire. “Send her back to the fires of hell!” Wynda cried.

Isobel gritted her teeth. She was numb with fear but wouldna cry out. She wouldna scream as she burned. She focused on the tiny village crofts in the distance, the wide, frozen loch where she swam in the summer, now heaped with snow, the bare trees and the cold, stark beauty of the ben. Her eyes swept the young elms at the edge of a flax field that was stubbly in the summer months, and she thought of the sun in August, how it felt warming her skin. Her mother’s necklace, which was close to her heart, comforted her. Once fire had tried to claim her and she had escaped its clutches. It didna appear she would be so lucky this time.

She twisted at her ropes, wanting to live, but she couldn’t move. Silently, she prayed.

“Bothen, you pile too much wood at her feet!” Glynis said. “She is slight. She will burn too quickly!”

Bothen grunted. “Yer right, Glynis. We dunna want her to burn too quickly.” Bothen removed some of the wood. “If only we had more witches to burn! We could put all of this wood to proper use!”

Isobel could smell the wet, stinking wool of Bothen’s plaid, and the smoke and burning tar of the barrel made her cough. She thought of Joan of Arc, a sister in Sight, a brave young woman who had been burned at the stake for heresy just a few years before Isobel had been born. She’d heard stories about Joan, tales that had circulated far and wide, to villages and towns, carried by dusty travelers. Despite being misunderstood and feared, Joan had led a humbled and bedraggled French army to victory over the English so that Charles the VII could sit on the throne. Soldiers, wearied and exhausted, were willing to fight without pay just to be at her side.

But after Charles was crowned king, clerics and courtiers turned against her, as well as bishops, friars, and priests, all of whom had devoted their lives to the Roman Catholic Church. They envied the voices that came so easily to Joan. Why would God speak directly to a slip of a girl, a peasant no less, and not to them? They were threatened by a young woman wearing a man’s battle armor and commanding thousands of men.

Joan was wounded twice, an arrow slicing into her shoulder during the Orleans campaign and a crossbow puncturing the soft flesh of her thigh during her failed attempt to free Paris.

The king she fought so valiantly to see crowned did not cherish conflict, and when Joan was captured and became a prisoner of England, he let his advisors make decisions. They told him to wait and see what happened. So he waited while French people marched and lit candles, demanding Joan’s release. They prayed for her in great cathedrals and humble shrines and in their small cottages. Children, like Isobel, went to sleep with stories of Joan’s holiness and brave deeds in their heads. Yet the English called Joan a clever witch, a devil worshipper, a camp follower. During her captivity, Joan had her hair chopped off like a boy’s. Isobel’s hair was now like a boy’s, and she was tiny too, like Joan of Arc had been. Tiny and misunderstood. But no one was marching here and demanding Isobel’s freedom.

During her trial for heresy, Joan told people that angels and saints instructed her to deliver France from the invading English and to establish Charles, the uncrowned heir to the French throne, as the country’s rightful king. She said that when she had visions, she saw bright light, and she heard the voices more clearly when bells sounded.

Sometimes Isobel saw bright light, too. Sometimes she even saw spirits. She heard her mother’s voice now: Be brave Isobel. Be like Joan of Arc.

They’d made Joan wear a pointed cap with the words “Heretic, relapsed, apostate, idolater” written on it. They’d shaved her head. There had been a large sign above the stake they’d tied her to that read: “Joan the Maid, liar, pernicious, seducer of the people, diviner, superstitious, blasphemer of God, presumptuous, misbelieving in the faith of Jesus Christ, idolater, cruel, dissolute invoker of devils, apostate, schismatic and heretic.” Joan couldn’t read the insults, though.

Joan was burned in the Old Marketplace in Rouen, and the fire was raked aside so the crowd could see by her naked and charred body that she had not escaped death. The fire was then relit, and oil was added to burn way any souvenirs people might take home and keep as relics of the saintly Maid of Orleans. Isobel had heard a legend about Joan; a pure white dove had miraculously flown from the fire as her soul left her body.

As Bothen readied the torch that would set Isobel ablaze, Isobel prayed that her soul would be lifted up with the wind like a white dove—that it would fly all the way to the stars, where there was no greedy flame and no pain and no one calling her witch.

The clan yelled and cheered as Bothen’s arms lowered the torch toward the kindling at her feet. Isobel could not feel her fingers or her toes; she was numb with cold and shock. She closed her eyes.

A moment later she snapped them open as she heard a whirring in the air. She knew that sound well; it wasna the sound of wood catching fire.

Bothen lay on the icy ground at her feet, the torch that would’ve ended her life spinning and sputtering harmlessly on the glistening, crusted snow. Bright, red blood gushed from an arrow embedded in the torn flesh of Bothen’s back, just as it had been in her vision.

Bothen did not move. Glynis screamed and her eyes went wide with horror. “Hag! What fresh sorcery is this?” She picked up the torch as if she would finish the job that Bothen started. A circle of five warriors mounted on horseback emerged from the swirling, white mists, and Glynis froze in fear. All held bow and arrow at the ready, and the crowd stepped back, suddenly aware of their own danger and vulnerability.

Glynis, at the forefront of the crowd now, let the torch drop. She sank to her knees and began wailing and pulling at her hair. Her expensive ribbon came loose and the wind pulled it away, a small, blood-red slash disappearing into unending sheets of freezing snow.

Because of the weather, the warriors had the backs of their plaids drawn up over their heads. The man in the middle of the circle of men slowly lowered his hood.

Isobel’s heart raced in fright. It was the warrior who had haunted her dreams….

By now she was sobbing tearlessly. There was a sprig of crowberry on his plaid, just as in her dreams, indicating he was ready for battle.

Though seated, she could tell he was clearly taller than the other men. His midnight-black hair hung to his shoulders. His eyelashes were dark on his cheeks, and his heated hazel eyes gazed straight into hers with an emotion she could not read. He had a rugged, square jaw with a dusting of dark whiskers and he wore a hard frown. A jagged scar ran the length of one side of his face. Even with the scar, it was an extraordinary face. His lips moved, and his deep, commanding voice made Isobel shiver.

“There will be no witch burning tonight, clan MacKinnon.”

 

Chapter 2

 

The dark-haired warrior looked at Glynis. “Ye there, on yer knees. Get up and unbind her.”

Glynis, sobbing, had to step over Bothen’s bloody body to do the warrior’s bidding. She fumbled with the ropes that bound Isobel to the stake. “I canna untie her! She’s bound too tightly!”

He raised his bow and arrow slightly and pointed it at her heart. “I’m an expert bowman, as ye can see by the worthless fool who lies dead at yer feet. Unbind her and hurry. Before I lose patience. Ye see how the Maclean deals with impudence and cruelty.” He paused. “Perhaps ye’d like to be tied to the stake in her place?”

The crowd murmured, stepping further away from Glynis.

Isobel averted her eyes from Bothen’s form, trying not to recall the times that she and other women of the keep and the village had picked their way through the muddy, gory aftermath of battle in a mist-filled glen, working together, singing sadly, retrieving arrows, and ministering to the wounded, the smell of death all around them. Some of the fallen warriors had also been stripped naked, robbed of their dignity even in death.

She could not help thinking about the time too, that the shot was thickest, and the women and small children gathered up arrows in armfuls and carried them to those who were on the keep wall, the sounds of bloody battle and men fighting and falling raging all around. Her step brother Calum was not the only man she’d seen fall from a tower.

Glynis struggled with the ropes and finally the cords were undone.

Isobel stumbled forward, falling on her hands and knees before the warrior and his horse, her hair ragged and short now, her face streaked with dirt and blood. Her severed braid lay on a snow bank where Bothen had haplessly discarded it. Despite feeling weak, she collected her breath and steadied herself. She looked unflinchingly into the eyes of the black-haired one. “I am well pleased to meet ye, my lord, even if ye are the devil himself.”

He arched a dark eyebrow and looked surprised but quickly masked it. Isobel saw that he smiled slightly, but his eyes did not. She had the thought then that if he truly smiled, it would be both brutal and mesmerizing.

“Ranulph, the grubby witch-child rides with ye.”

The warrior named Ranulph handed his bow and arrow to the giant, red-bearded man on the horse beside him, dismounted, and strode over to Isobel, his boots kicking up swirls of snow. He helped her up and then onto his horse, and grumbling, swung up behind her, wrapping her in his long plaid against the cold so she was settled inside it, against his broad chest.

“No’ my favorite way of keepin’ warm, nestled against a MacKinnon witch, but it’ll have to do,” Ranulph said. “I’ll no’ harm ye, little lass,” he added. “So dunna cast any wicked spells my way. If ye feel the need to change someone into an ugly, pimpled toad, change Dugald there. He’s shaggy as a Highland bull but beneath all that hair he looks like a toad anyhow.”

The red-bearded man named Dugald who sat the horse next to Ranulph guffawed. “Ranulph, yer mouth talks and shit falls out.”

Isobel shivered violently and Ranulph wrapped the plaid tighter. “Och, but why can’t she ride with Dugald?”

Dugald handed the bow and arrow back to Ranulph and shook his head, a warning in his eyes for Ranulph to stop talking.

The grim, black-haired warrior ignored both Ranulph and Dugald and spoke again to the muddled crowd. “Dunna follow us unless ye want Maclean arrows in yer backs or broad-axes in yer skulls. The news of yer unprovoked attack against the MacAlisters has spread far and wide. Though enemies to Maclean, what ye did to them was despicable. Ye slept among them as peaceful guests, rose up, and raped, killed, and butchered them. Ye showed no mercy. And now ye’ve taken to witch burning? Yer clan is a sarding disgrace.”

He nodded to his men, and the half circle of towering, prancing war horses—their muscled, glossy flanks glistening in the cold—swung around. As they galloped back into the snowy mists, the dark swallowing them up as if they were ghosts, Isobel overheard one of the women exclaim, “Leith Maclean! So, the witch meets the devil himself!”

[1] See SPELLBOUND, Book #1

 

Read the rest of ACROSS A DARK HIGHLAND SHORE at:

http://www.amazon.com/Across-Highland-Shore-Highlands-Romance-ebook/dp/B00UPH6MI2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426515236&sr=8-1&keywords=across+a+dark+highland+shore

 

Read the latest reviews for Kelly's historical romance, SPELLBOUND, book #1 in the hot Highlands romance series.

 

Kat Martin, New York Times best-selling author with over 13 million books in print:

"An unforgettable highland warrior seeking revenge, an innocent maiden brave enough to confront him. SPELLBOUND is a terrific novel filled with passion, intrigue, vengeance, and all-consuming love. Readers will clamor for a sequel." 

 

 

 

Read the reviews for Spellbound!