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Lord Of The Isles
By Amanda Scott
Warner ForeverISBN: 0-446-61461-0
Chapter OneScotland, the Highlands & Western Isles, Spring 1370
The unruly night turned suddenly terrifying when a lightning bolt ripped across the black heavens, followed instantly by a deafening crack of thunder that all but muted the pelting din of the rain. The storm that had muttered, growled, and spat at the lone, miserable rider throughout the afternoon and evening, attacked with a vengeance, startling him and his horse so much that it nearly unseated him.
Struggling to keep his own fear from further terrifying the poor beast, he forced calm into his voice and firm steadiness into the hand that held the reins, only to be nearly unseated again when great flickering branches of fresh lightning, one after another, clawed and stabbed the world around him, slashing sky and land amidst cracks of thunder so loud it was as if the gods beat drums inside his head.
His horse, mad now with terror, reared and plunged, in grave danger of hurting itself or hurling him into oblivion, because the narrow track, although serviceable enough in daylight with rain spattering him in irregular bursts, now boiled and rushed beneath them like a snowmelt river in spring spate. With footing precarious, he fought to bring the frightened animal under control, succeeding only when a lull occurred as suddenly as the onslaught had. The rain eased to a drizzle.
Knowing that the storm was as likely as not to renew its fury, he knew, too, that the longer he stayed in the open, the greater the risk to his safety. More than once during the past four hours, he had berated himself for pressing on from Glen Shiel in the face of such strong storm warnings. But he had wanted to reach Kyle Rhea and the ferry crossing to the Isle of Skye before nightfall so that he could return his borrowed horse and sail home to Lochbuie.
However, much as he wanted to feel his own boat beneath him again, no man of sense would risk oarsmen or vessel, not to mention himself, by trying to pole a ferry or row a longboat anywhere tonight. He needed to find shelter, and quickly.
By noon that day, the clouds had hung so low over nearby hills as to make him wonder idly if, by standing atop his saddle, he might touch them with his whip. Then darkness had drawn nearer, the clouds had turned purple-black, and the winds had attacked, roiling them into frenzied harbingers of what he presently endured.
The wind chose that moment to pick up again, and the rain, too, slanting sheets of it that threatened to drown both him and the horse. Lightning flashed again but more distantly, and the crack and roll that followed took time to reach him. The worst of the storm, at least this part of it, was moving on.
He had complete sympathy with the horse, for if the truth were known, the crackling bolts frightened him witless and had done so since his childhood, when he had feared that such a bolt might crack open the sky and drop God right out of heaven to smash headlong into the ground or the sea. And even if the lightning failed to get God, it could certainly get him.
Maturity had eventually persuaded him that an all-powerful God could survive lightning, but it had not yet persuaded him that his own mortal body was any match for it. He had fought to conquer his fear, and he certainly did not admit its existence to anyone but himself, because he had his reputation to maintain. A fierce, battle-seasoned soldier who stood six feet five inches in his bare feet did not admit to a bairn's terror of nature's flaming arrows.
With gust-driven rain beating down on him again and increasingly distant sheets of lightning providing the only light ahead now, he bent his thoughts sternly toward finding shelter. He knew of only one landowner nearby who might provide acceptable hospitality on demand, and although he might find a crofter sooner, a croft would provide few amenities for himself and his horse. Therefore, albeit with reluctance, he would seek out Murdoch Macleod of Glenelg.
In the darkness, he was not certain of his exact location, but he knew that the castle he sought lay nearby, most likely just beyond the steep ridge to his left. The ridge was itself something of an obstacle with the storm's threat still hovering, but time mattered more now than risk, so he turned the pony uphill and murmured a polite request to God that He hold His fire at bay until they had crested the ridge.
The rain stopped as he wended his way upward, and shortly after he reached the crest, a full moon broke suddenly through flying black clouds overhead, lighting the storm-blown landscape and revealing a long, narrow loch glimmering in the glen below, with a great castle perched formidably atop a promontory jutting into it from its rugged northern shore.
The moon dipped back behind the clouds as abruptly as it had revealed itself, and darkness enveloped the world again, albeit not for long. A few minutes later, silvery moonlight pierced the curtain of flying clouds again. The wind still howled, sweeping up the narrow glen, hurling gusts at him that nearly buffeted him from his horse, and whipping the dark loch into foam-crested waves. But with moonlight glinting on its dark, rumpled surface, and lights burning in the upper windows of the castle, he could see his way now and could almost feel the warmth of welcoming fire, food, and drink that he knew he would find inside its great hall.
That he would also find the love of his life there never crossed his mind.
* * *
The wind raged around Castle Chalamine. Lightning flashed and thunder roared, terrifying at least four of the castle's youngest inhabitants into shrieks, but that only added to already existing pandemonium, because supper was sadly late in making its appearance.
"We're hungry, Cristina," ten-year-old Sidony lamented for the third time.
Nine-year-old Sorcha echoed her, adding, "'Tis very late, is it not?"
With their fine white-blond hair, thin faces, and pale blue eyes, the two youngest Macleod sisters looked almost like twins, for they were nearly the same height, and presently their frowns were exactly alike as they faced their eldest sister.
"They'll bring your supper soon," eighteen-year-old Lady Cristina Macleod reassured them. "I've sent Adela to hurry them. Mariota, love," she added, "pray do not stand so near the fire. Your skirt is almost in the flames."
"But I'm cold! Can you not tell someone to build this puny fire larger?"
Before Cristina could reply that the fire in the huge fireplace was large enough, seventeen-year-old Mariota added querulously, "Where is Father?"
The laird himself answered that question by striding into the hall through the buttery door at the north end of the great hall, bellowing, "Blast those knaves below, Cristina! I've told them the dogs must not be let into the kitchens, and here is Adela telling me that my supper's been put back because two of the lads got into a snarling fight over a roast they'd put on the carver's tray."
Bewildered, Cristina turned nonetheless calmly to meet this new crisis, "Two of the cook's lads were fighting over a roast, sir?"
"Not cook's lads! Did I no just say they'd let the damned dogs into the kitchen again? I dinna ken what manner o' household ye run here, but-"
"Indeed, and you are right to be vexed with me, for I am sure you must have said that about the dogs straightaway, but with everyone complaining at once and that storm outside crashing thunder about our ears as it is, I simply did not hear you. What is it, Tam?" she asked, turning to meet the lanky gillie hurrying toward her from the stairway entrance. "Pray do not tell me 'tis yet another crisis."
"Nay, mistress. Least I dinna think he be a crisis, only that there be a gentleman rode up t' the door t' request hospitality."
"God bless me, Cristina," bellowed his lordship. "What sort o' fool rides his horse through a storm as bad as this one?"
"The sort who finds himself caught unawares, I'd expect."
"Och, aye, indeed, and if he didna note that the sky has been threatening a deluge all day, then he is a very great fool, as I said from the outset!"
"Would you have us deny him the shelter he seeks, sir? It must be as you command, of course. Tam is but awaiting your instructions."
"Faugh! Deny him? I said nae such thing, lass, and well d'ye ken that. Am I a barbarian?"
"No, sir, certainly not."
"Is it no a matter o' Highland law and custom to admit anyone requesting shelter and to guarantee his safety whilst he accepts our hospitality?"
"You are perfectly right, sir, as always," Cristina said, gesturing to the gillie to admit the gentleman. "Oh, and Tam, do see that someone looks after his poor horse, too," she added. "With all this thunder, it must be terrified."
"Aye, my lady. I'll see to it."
"One moment, lad," Macleod barked. "Did our visitor tell ye his name?"
"Aye, laird. He did call himself Hector Reaganach, Laird o' Lochbuie."
Cristina's breath caught in her throat.
"The devil he did!" Macleod exclaimed. "Calls himself Hector the Ferocious, does he? Well, no matter. I ken who he is-a Maclean. Upstarts, every one of them!"
The gillie hesitated, but recovering her wits, Cristina motioned again to him to go and fetch their visitor up to the hall.
When Tam had gone, she took swift stock of the scene before her. Her three youngest sisters had been playing a game, the rules of which apparently demanded that they chase each other from one end of the hall to the other, scattering any number of articles across the room as they did. To add to the mess, her father had spread documents out on the high table despite its having long since been laid for supper.
"Isobel," she said to the twelve-year-old organizer of the game, "pray-"
But although she had intended to issue a string of commands to her several siblings and two menservants presently in the hall, a new voice interrupted from the doorway of the inner chamber behind the dais, demanding in shrill tones to know if she had any notion when they were going to take their supper.
"For I fear that I'm nigh starving, and I do believe that we ought to have had our supper more than an hour ago, so if you do not want to have to nourish me back to health or, worse, to bury me, pray send for sustenance, my love."
Lady Euphemia Macleod looked as if she were starving, for she was rail thin. Although approaching the end of her middle years, she had never embraced the marital state. Instead, she had lived with her younger brother, Macleod of Glenelg, since his marriage some twenty years before, serving as little more than a cipher in his household until eight years before when Anna, Lady Macleod, had died suddenly while fighting to give birth to a ninth daughter.
Sadly, the babe had also perished in the struggle, but Lady Euphemia proved overnight to be an undiscovered asset, taking swift charge of the family in the chaos of shock and grief that threatened to engulf them all. For three long months she had dealt capably with every child, adult, and crisis, right up to the day she had looked at then eleven-year-old Cristina and said mildly, "You have a capable nature, my dear, and a natural air of command. 'Tis your right and duty, rather than mine, to act as mistress of your father's household and hostess to his guests until such time as he is kind enough to provide you with a husband. At that time, naturally, you will pass the candle to our dearest Mariota."
With those chilling words, Lady Euphemia had cheerfully returned to her position as cipher, and Cristina had picked up the reins of the household.
"Leave it to a blasted Maclean to show himself at such an inconvenient hour," Macleod snapped. "Where's the jug, Cristina? I've a raging thirst on me."
Nodding to one of the menservants to attend to the laird's thirst, Cristina was moving to help the children put their things away when a resounding crash of thunder rattled the shutters, black smoke billowed from the fireplace as if the devil himself were about to enter the chamber, and someone shrieked, "Fire! Oh, help!"
"Bless me, what now!" Macleod snapped.
The shrieking continued, but blinded by the swiftly growing cloud of smoke, Cristina could not see what had happened although she easily recognized the voice.
Apparently, Lady Euphemia did as well, because she said, "Mariota, what is it? For mercy's sake, child, stop that screeching." But her words had no effect.
"Calm yourself, Mariota," Cristina said firmly, feeling her way as rapidly as she could past the high table toward the fireplace and her shrieking sister, only to be abruptly shoved aside as a huge figure swept past her.
* * *
Having turned his weary horse over to one lad, Hector followed a second one into the central tower of Castle Chalamine. The entry opened onto a winding stone stairway, and as the wind blew the door out of his guide's grasp and slammed it against the wall, the lad shouted, "I'll take your damp cloak and battleaxe, sir, an it please ye."
Removing the ancestral axe he nearly always carried with him in its sling, and shrugging off his sodden cloak, Hector handed over both and was shutting the door as the lad hung them on pegs in the wall, when they heard a great crack of thunder followed by feminine screams from above. The gillie reacted quickly, leaping up the twisting stairway with Hector taking time only to bar the door before following. But at the doorway into the hall, the lad paused, apparently stunned by the smoke billowing past him as the shrieking continued.
Hector pushed the lad aside, took in the smoky scene at a glance, and strode toward the screams, scarcely noting as he did the one or two obstacles he swept from his path.
As he had expected, he found a lass amidst the still-billowing smoke, trying ineffectively and without missing a screech, to beat out flames that had ignited one side of her long overskirt and now shot up to threaten her arms and face if not her life. With smoke blinding him to any nearby bucket or jug, he grabbed the fabric below her hips and, ignoring her screams, ripped it free and flung it into the fireplace.
When she continued to shriek, he caught her by the shoulders and gave her a rough shake. "Stop that screeching," he commanded. "Tell me if you're burnt."
Instead, she burst into tears and collapsed in his arms.
Startled, he held her as he snapped, "Someone get over here, shift these logs, and stir up that fire. It is the only way I know to clear out this smoke."
A calm female voice nearby said, "Pray attend to that, Tam, and add another log whilst you are about it. Mariota, stop that noise now and tell us if you are hurt."
The face buried against his chest shifted slightly, and a tearful voice said fretfully, "I don't think so, but how horrid! It was as if the wind had turned into some demon, Cristina, breathing fire all over me! It was killing me!"
"Don't talk drivel," Hector said sternly. "You should certainly know better than to ... to ..."
Excerpted from Lord Of The Isles by Amanda Scott Excerpted by permission.
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