MacIan’s Curse Excerpt

Chapter One

Scottish Trossachs, Spring 1651

       “Have ye been praying, child?”
       As soon as Sarah Clinton raised her eyelids, she realized she was in trouble. Her stepfather’s eyes flashed like black obsidian, darker even than the cold cramped study they occupied. Short and burly, he ruled his castle through intimidation and cruelty, a fact she’d learned early on in her mother’s marriage to the dour Scotsman. He towered over her kneeling form, one hand stroking the affliction that nestled beneath the plaid kilt around his waist. As she watched, the mass swelled, telling her what she already suspected.

       He planned to beat her again.
       Desperate, her gaze circled the room. Heavy furniture crowded the room, the red velvet more black than red and worn through from decades of use. In one corner sat Eilidh, Hammond’s sister and her mother’s longtime nurse. Her gnarled hand clutched the leather straps she used when Sarah’s mother needed calming, slapping them against her flabby thighs as she smirked. Larger and more manly looking than her brother, Eilidh’s methods of punishment were more subtle than Hammond’s and just as effective.
       With a shudder, Sarah’s gaze wandered toward the only other form in the room. Beside the ratty brown curtains, Hammond’s bastard son stood, staring unconcernedly out the arrow slit window at rain that hadn’t let up for three days. Taller and thinner than his father, Euanan qualified as a handsome man by most, but to Sarah, he was an unknown she feared even more than Hammond.
       “Yes, sir.” She choked the words past the lump of dread in her throat and lowered her gaze to the floor. “Three times a day.” Just as he had said she should. Not the prayers he said she should lift to God, though. She didn’t pray that her deeds pleased God or thank him for his grace. She prayed for salvation; a blessing Hammond believed few achieved. She prayed each time he sent for her; that he’d not beat her again, that her uncle might rescue her, that she’d escape the Hell they called Mitchell Castle.
      “Sloth is a sin, child,” he said, and she flinched, unable to prevent shrinking away from the hand he lifted. Calloused and rough, with one finger missing, his knuckle scraped the bruise he’d left two days earlier then slid along the edge of her plain linen kerchief. “I trust ye’ve been fighting it.” His gaze flicked over her right leg, lips curling with disgust.
      “Yes, sir.” When he leaned closer, her stomach heaved, and she held her breath. A rancid garlic scent lingered on him, along with another strange smell that increased whenever his affliction protruded. “I finished the mending, stripped the bed, and swept my bedroom floor.” She’d wanted to lay new straw, but the straw they’d brought was moldy and stank. As it did now, her weak leg had screamed in agony, and her jaw and ribs ached from the blows he’d administered for venturing from her room without permission.
      “Just get on with it, Da.” Euanan spun away from the window and marched toward the massive desk behind his father. He perched on one corner; one wool-clad knee bent. Unlike Hammond’s Scottish attire, he wore petticoat breeches and slashed sleeves crafted of the finest linen. A long blond wig accentuated the black eyes that dominated his face.
      Hammond’s forehead crinkled, and he turned toward his son. “Are ye sure ye want to marry her? What if she’s mad like her mother? She’s dim-witted enough as ’tis, not to mention a cripple.”
       Sarah stomach heaved again, bile from the mealy breakfast porridge rising to burn her throat. Marry Euanan? She’d rather die.
       “It matters not.” Euanan’s perfectly manicured fingers waved it away. “Snuff the candles, lift her legs, and she’ll get a brat just as well as anyone else. We only need one, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an imbecile or not. Twill still be a Campbell.”
       Horror flooded Sarah, and she gaped at the two men. They were as insane as her mother.
       “I suppose that’s true.” A feverish light lit Hammond’s eyes, and a red tipped tongue darted out. The look on his face sent shivers through her, like an army of millipedes crawling inside her. “And I can keep trying until she gets it right.”
       Euanan shrugged. “As you please. I care not as long as I don’t have to do the deed.”
       Sarah’s eyes widened, and her gaze flew toward him. Euanan’s lips curled with distaste and icy black eyes stabbed her. She’d heard the whispers. Despite two previous marriages, Euanan preferred the beds of men, if she understood the strange Gaelic words correctly. Both women had died soon after wedding him. Had they too been victims of Hammond’s evil schemes?
       “No!” The word slipped out, and both men frowned. “I won’t marry you.”
       Hammond’s hand lashed out and jerked Sarah’s head back by her tight braid. “Ye’ll do as ye’re told, Bruchag.”
      Witch. He’d called her a witch.
      “My uncle will never allow it,” she said, gritting her teeth against the burn in her scalp.
      Euanan laughed and waved a yellowed parchment. “Your uncle has already agreed. Refused to let Da have you, but he agreed to me. Said no one else wanted a cripple.”<
      Stunned, Sarah’s hope crumpled. She’d written to her uncle every day since her mother had wed Hammond Mitchell. Every day she prayed he’d come rescue her. She should have known better.
       Alexander Campbell had schooled her in the politics of the Highlands, drummed it into her every time he visited. You’re a Campbell, lass, and Campbells breed power.
      Her mother had been a Campbell, too. Despite a fragile mind, they had wed her to the wealthiest man in England. Then after he died, Hammond married her. Hammond had beat her when Archibald Campbell, her uncle’s uncle and laird of the entire Campbell clan, said they wouldn’t recognize the marriage. Her mother had died soon after the ceremony. Hammond had countered by refusing to send troops during the battle of Dunbar, resulting in the Campbell’s worst defeat ever.
      Alexander had been trying to swell his uncle’s forces ever since, and Hammond boasted men in the hundreds.
      A whimper escaped her. Hammond’s mouth curved into a smile, and the pull on her hair released.
     “That’s a good lass,” he said as she lurched to her hands and knees. The toe of his boot struck out, and a flash of agony burst through her ribs. “I’ll only hurt ye a little. Have to make sure ye can stand up to speak the vows.”
     Sarah curled into a ball and held onto the one remaining truth.
     She might be a cripple, but unless they killed her, she could still run.

 

****

     “There it is, lads.” Jamie MacIan reined in his mount and stared at the pile of stones peeking through the tree-tops while the rest of his group of rag-tag Scots crowned the last peak.
     Set in a fold, the mountain formed one side of the small castle. The remnants of a square courtyard opened to a wide swath of green that ran the length of the mountain then dropped into a forest ravine shrouded in mist. A single tower stood sentinel, embracing the main keep. The other towers slumped on the ground like fallen warriors slain by the first. Behind the castle, the mountain rose in an incline so steep even sheep avoided it. The other side, Jamie had learned on earlier explorations, was nearly as steep.
     It would take years to restore the entirety, but the main keep could be habitable before winter.

     A restless excitement thrummed through his body despite nine days of excruciatingly slow travel. It had taken him ten years to realize his dream; ten years of saving every pound that crossed his palm. Now, the realization of that dream lay before him. A sliver of sun, the first they’d seen in three days, reflected off the dull stone as if in welcome.
     “Looks like a pile of bones to me,” Patrick said, with a laugh and a reassuring pat to his gray mount. Barely twenty, and his laird’s youngest brother, Patrick’s cheery nature had kept their spirits up during what had turned out to be one of the coldest, wettest journeys they’d ever made.
     “I don’t care if it’s a pile of nettles. If it’s dry, I’ll lie in it.” Another of his companions and his closest friend, Malcolm Grant threw back the edge of his tartan and stretched. Droplets of rain sparkled in his umber beard, shaken loose as his massive form shuddered.
     “I ken it’s not much,” Jamie admitted while he scanned the remainder of the group. A mere ten in total, eight stared back as if awaiting orders, just as he had always stared back at his laird, Bryan MacGregor. Aside from Rory, the youngest, he trusted each one with his life and would give his in a heartbeat. With luck and a tremendous amount of work, he vowed he’d give them the life they sought. “It’s ours though. The land’s fertile, there are four small streams running through it, with pike, salmon, and trout, and the mountains can support enough sheep to clothe ourselves–”
     “Ack, shut yer gob, Jamie.” An older man pushed his horse through and spat a wad of tobacco out. “Tis a fine tract. Just needs a bit o’ work. Won’t get done if we sit and gab, though.” Without waiting for a response, Jock picked his way along a deer trail that led off to the right. One by one the others followed. A quiet murmur of excitement replaced the grumbling that had settled over them.
     Within an hour, the tower soared above them, the square courtyard reaching out broken arms in welcome. Pieces of wall scattered the ground. Roots and trees cracked much of the structure, hiding the white stone that had lain neglected for too long.
     Jamie bounced from his horse and dropped the reins, unable to suppress the smile that split his face.
     “Your granny would be pleased,” Malcolm said as his hand ran along a twisted length of iron. The remnants of a gate bar, the metal twisted amidst bits of charred wood. Malcolm’s blue eyes scanned the ruins with an approving nod. “She’ll be a beauty once we’re done.”
     “Do ye think Lady Aalis is here?” Patrick asked with a mischievous grin.
     Young Rory’s brown eyes widened with the look of a frightened rabbit. Half-way dismounted; his motions slowed. A timid seven-year-old, he was here to instill confidence, a decision Jamie still debated. Talk of the famous Lady Aalis, the kidnapped French wife of the original owner, wasn’t likely to do it.
     “Ghosts aren’t real.” Jamie lied with a conviction as strong as his belief they did. His gaze wandered up the tower. One story claimed they had locked her in for a year before she jumped from the window. Another swore she’d died birthing twins begotten as a result of his ancestor’s rape. The stories claimed she’d cursed his great-great-great-grandfather and his children. Whatever the truth, the family’s history was riddled with misfortune and the story lost to the bards. What he hid from the group was his hope that if he restored the castle, he might be able to satisfy the ghost and reverse the blight destined to destroy his line.
     “Are ye certain?” The trust that lay in Rory’s question pushed the doubts aside, and Jamie turned a heart-felt smile on the youngster.
     “Aye.” Jamie ruffled the mop of red hair. “And even if they are, I’ll not let them hurt ye.”
     Uncertain, Rory clutched the reins of his small piebald and eyed the walls suspiciously. “Do ye think there’s hidey-holes in it?”
     “I’m sure there are.” Jamie chuckled to himself. Had the boy’s fascination with tunnels and priest holes always been there, or had the fateful massacre that had taken Rory’s mother and his own family created it?
     Jamie shoved the thought aside. “Paddy, why don’t you and Rory see if you can find a dry room inside while we get the lay of the land?”
     Reaching for the lead string, Jamie took Rory’s mount and his own and began to tend them. Around him, his men began to do the same, one taking two mounts while others started preparations for the night or explored the ruins. Mentally, Jamie ran through the necessary tasks, pairing them up with the names of the men to make sure they performed them all. There was no need. They were aware of what to do. They’d been doing it their entire lives. Just not for him.
     “Do ye hear that?” Jock asked.
     The rest stiffened and spun toward him, hands reaching for their weapons until they saw him. Jock stood in the center of the rubbish-strewn courtyard, face raised toward the sky, with as beatific an expression as Jamie had ever seen.
     “All I hear is birds.” Malcolm stabbed at a pile of leaves in the corner. A squeal split the air, and a dead squirrel flipped through the air.
     “Aye. That’s the point. No chatty womenfolk. No babes underfoot. Tis heaven.” He drew in a lengthy breath, then exhaled. “Even smells quiet.”
     “Ye just be getting old and crotchety,” Malcolm said with a chuckle.
     Many of them were here in search of peace and quiet. MacGregor castle had become a noisy, overflowing home after the laird wed. While his new wife was well-loved, her presence had changed things. The long nights spent around the blazing hearth, drinking and telling tales of battles and cattle raids had given way to female chatter and early nights. As always, the clan followed the laird’s lead, pairing up in increasing numbers and adding to their families with alarming speed. For some, such as Jamie and Jock, the reminder of what they’d lost became too much. For Malcolm and others, the domestic bliss was too tame.
     “I, for one, would rather smell rabbit roasting.” A lean, stealthy figure slid from the shadows to toss three rabbits at Jock’s feet before crossing to Jamie. The forward scout, Carson Sinclair nodded in greeting then dropped his voice. “There’s no one within miles, but an extra guard tonight wouldna be amiss. Someone passed through recently.”
     He handed a scrap of cloth to Jamie. Too small to tell them much, the coarse, muddy linen displayed jagged edges, as if ripped from a larger cloth.
     “Doubtful it’s anyone of concern. They trampled the bushes something fierce, so they not be trying to hide, but I lost the trail a short ways back.” Carson’s brow wrinkled, a sign that worried Jamie more than his words. Carson was able to track a mouse through a briar bush. “It’s this God-awful rain, I think. Wiped the hoof prints away.”
     “Just one?”
     “Aye. Someone small. Had I not found that”—He gestured at the cloth with his chin.—“I would have thought it was a runaway pony. Found the scrap a mile or two back.”
     Carson turned away, tossing his plaid back to wring out the excess water, a sign he’d said everything there was to say. That he’d spoke at all caused a shiver of concern. Of the bunch, Carson was the least likely to worry. He didn’t fear much of the unknown and even less of the known.
     Jamie glanced at the tower and another sliver of premonition sluiced through him. He tried to shake it off, but as he did, the sound of running feet, breaking twigs, and labored breathing broke out.
     This time, steel shrieked. Stones rattled and curses arose. Moments later, Rory hurtled through a gap in the bushes, Patrick scrambling on his heels.
     “I seen her! I seen her!”
     The men closed ranks, backs to one another. Rory skidded to a halt. Patrick tripped, nearly running over him. Everyone glared at the bushes while Rory bent over, gasping for air.
     “Twasn’t her.” Patrick wheezed out and dragged one hand through his copper hair. “But twas something in there.” His dirk pointed toward a rock outcropping behind the trees.
     “Twas so! She talked to me.”
     Patrick shook his head. Jamie’s grip loosened, but his sword remained poised to strike. A quick glance at Carson conveyed his intentions and sent another two men off into the woods.
     “What did she say?” Jamie asked when Rory wiped his hands and straightened. And how had they ended up in the woods outside the castle?
     “She said to be careful.”
     Wordlessly, two more men melted into the darkness encroaching on the courtyard.
     “Jock, you stay here with Rory.” Jamie’s fingers tightened around his sword hilt, and he drew a dirk from his boot. Malcolm, Paddy, and Carson followed suit.
     “No!” Rory launched himself and wrapped his thin arms around Jamie’s forearm. “Please!”
     The dirk slipped from Jamie’s fingers, clattering against a stone.
     “Egads, boy.” Careful to avoid the youngster’s head, Jamie swung his sword arm to the right and wrapped his left around the boy’s waist. The slight figure shook and buried his face in Jamie’s stomach.
     “Please, Laird. Let me come.”
     Jamie dropped to his knees. “Ack, Rory boy. Tisn’t safe. Ye just said so.”
     The carrot curls bounced. “Nay. The Lady told me.” His face screwed up, and his lip quivered. “I don’t want to be left behind.” His chin rose in false bravado. “Not again.”
     Paddy stepped forward and laid a hand on Rory’s shoulder. “You’ll stay close to me, brat, or I’ll slice the curls off your head meself.” He handed the boy a razor-sharp dirk. “And be careful ye dinna stab me by mistake.” They edged forward, falling into order automatically before Paddy added, “And twasn’t Lady Aalis.”
     Carson led, figure crouched as his gaze leapt from the ground to the bushes and back. Within minutes, they traversed the underbrush and stood before a crack in the mountain. Barely wide enough to fit a man, the fissure hid behind a thicket of burnet roses yet to bloom.
     Jock eyed the opening warily. “Guess I’ll guard the entrance. Paddy, how d’ye get in from the inside?”
     “There’s an opening in the kitchen. Looks like a shelf hid it.”
     “Remind me not to send you and Rory next time something needs exploring,” Jamie drawled.
     At his gesture, Malcolm snaked back the way they’d come. His friend’s muscles and girth were too large to fit through the crack. Reduced to four, one of which might prove more a liability than an asset, Jamie reconsidered his decision. One look at Rory’s face prevented a reversal. The boy stared up at him with utter faith, dirk clutched at the ready.
     With a sigh, Jamie pulled out a taper and lit it. “Stay back from the light. Let me and Carson be the target.” Rory edged closer to Patrick, and Jamie followed Carson through the cleft, squeezing his shoulders through the rock with an oomph.
     The short tunnel widened once he eased through. Before him, the whisper of Carson’s feet mixed with the sputter of the flame. Jamie slinked forward until the light widened, then stepped into a small cavern.
     “Looks like your ancestors expected trouble,” Carson remarked.
     Scattered throughout the cavern, rusty weapons lay in pieces, interspersed with broken barrels and old bones. Jamie kicked at one. Light gleamed off the white bone, a dead fox skull, accentuating the empty orbs where eyes had been.
     “Aye.” The taper barely revealed the surrounding area. Shadows multiplied beyond that, but darker pockets suggested other exits. As he stepped toward the center, he glanced back, hand shielding the flame. Sure enough, a faint brightening beckoned from behind Rory and Patrick.
     “We were picking through that,” Patrick said and pointed his sword at a pile of rotten garments spilling out of a disintegrating trunk, “when we heard it.”
     “Twas the ghost.” Rory’s whisper sounded loud, bouncing off the close walls.
     Jamie winced and lifted a finger to his lips.
     “Go away.” The moan slithered up Jamie’s spine.
     Rory jumped. The light of his taper bounced off the whites of his eyes, darting like a scurrying mouse.
     Off to his right, Carson’s plaid whispered as he slipped farther into the shadows. Jamie moved left, swinging the light outward in order to leave Rory and Patrick cloaked in darkness.
     “Come no closer.” Breathy and unreal, the words were more a moan than a command.
     “Name yourself.” Jamie raised the taper. The light danced, swallowed as quickly as it landed.
     A scrape snapped him to the left. A muttered curse filled the air. His jaw tightened.
     In Gaelic, he asked, “What were you and Rory talking about in here, Paddy?”
     Patrick followed his lead, responding in their native tongue. “Whether Lady Aalis would hurt anyone or not.”
     “Go!” the voice urged. “Ere it’s too late.”
     The spirit still spoke in English, but the words strengthened Jamie’s conviction. Whoever it was, they’d used Rory’s fear against him. While they might understand Gaelic, they might not be skilled enough to answer. Lady Aalis had been French, proficient in neither Gaelic nor English.
     “If you’re Lady Aalis,”he said in French, “name your kidnapper.”
     Another shuffling sound narrowed the location, and the shadow that was Carson eased closer. Jamie waited for the response, jaw clenched, suspecting none.
     “Please,” the would-be ghost begged, in French. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
     A second later, a scream erupted, deafening and shrill. Jamie lunged forward. Something crashed into him, arms and legs flailing. The taper hurtled to the ground. Carson cursed, and Jamie’s shin exploded with pain. When another shape slammed against him, his sword hand smashed into the wall. His weapon clanged against the stone.
     With a calculated swipe, Jamie reached out. His fingers latched onto thin bone and locked. He hauled it close, latching an arm about the small frame. Another frightened wail raised hackles on his neck. Tiny hands and feet pummeled him, like a barrage of snowballs thrown by weaklings, constant but harmless. His captive wrenched free. He surged forward. A form collapsed beneath him, bony and wet. A whoosh of air burst in his face, but as he reached out, the figure slipped away. A scrambling noise directed him to the right. With a final burst of speed, he wrapped his arms around a writhing form.
     “No!” A wrenching sob tore the air. Tiny hands locked onto his arms, scratching and pushing to no avail. He tightened the embrace, lifting the form from the ground. Feet thrashed at his thighs, one lucky swing connecting with his nutmegs.
     He sucked in a breath and held tighter. Terror soaked into him. Frail ribs heaved beneath icy skin; raspy panicked breaths beat at him. The entire form shook.
     “Ack, aon bheag,” he whispered as a curly head banged at his neck and chest. “I’ll not hurt ye.” Over and over he repeated the assurance while futile blows batted at him. To prove the point, he gentled his grip, holding on just enough to restrain the child. Finally, with gasping sobs of desperation, the figure sagged in his arms.
     “Is she all right?” Rory asked, voice trembling. “Lady Aalis says she’s hurt.”
     “I dinna ken.” Jamie lifted the limp figure and cradled it in the dark. Lighter than an armful of kindling, with limbs so thin he feared they might snap, she slumped against him. Childish whimpers clutched at his heart while bone-chilling frost sucked the warmth from him. “But she’ll freeze to death if we dinna get her warmed up.”