Sinful Scot Excerpt

Book 1 > Highlanders Through Time

Prologue
Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
Nor bid the Stars farewell.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The Past
1286
Fifeshire, Scotland

The king is dead. It was nae an accident. Yet, they want people to believe it was.

The three thoughts pounded through Shona’s head faster than the pouring rain that was drenching her. Her footfalls thudded against the hard ground, frozen by the unforgiving wintery storm, and her feet slipped on the slick fallen leaves as she ran in a blind terror toward Kinghorn Castle.

She had to reach her sister. Grace would know what to do.

If she could just get to her elder sister before—

“I see ye now, Shona MacKinnish! I’m gaining on ye!”

Shona’s heart tried to break free of her ribs and beat right out of her chest. Without slowing her pace, she glanced over her shoulder and sucked in a sharp breath. Yearger Irvine had indeed obtained much ground on her. Even clutching the cumbersome sword he intended to kill her with, the heavily muscled traitor was still faster than she was.

She turned back toward Kinghorn Castle, which she could not yet see through the rain and fog. One step. Two. And thwack! A branch struck her hard across her forehead. The pain clanked her teeth together and made sparks dance before her eyes. They descended to the ground like falling stars. And with a violent crash, so did she. Her knees struck the cold dirt, and excruciating pain burst under the caps. She cried out, pushing the pain away and scrambling hand over foot in a struggle to stand, but her blasted sodden cloak made her clumsy. She stumbled once, cutting her lip on a rock, and then slipped again, hitting her forehead once more. Finally, she secured steady footing, but she could feel Yearger behind her, almost close enough to reach her. And if he did…

“Halt in the name of the king!” the treacherous liar ordered.

The dim glow of the castle suddenly appeared in the distance. “Ye killed the king!” she shouted, the light giving her hope. She pushed herself a little harder, but a hand grabbed her cloak and yanked her backward.

Nae today, ye devil.

She tugged her cloak open at the neck and slipped out of it just as fingers tangled in her hair. She surged forward, wincing as the strands were ripped from her scalp. Tears welled in her eyes, but she would not let them fall.

Better pain than death.

Wrapping herself in that reminder, she ran for her life, and for Scotland, for she had no doubt something was amiss.

Behind her, Yearger screamed her name, but she did not pause. She raced through the darkness, her breath puffing in white rings, her side pinching, and her thighs and calves burning. She stumbled down the path and over gnarled roots, jumping fallen logs and splashing through water and muck to reach the castle grounds. Kinghorn was close now. The torches at the twin guard towers shone brightly, inviting her to lower her defenses, but that would be a mistake. She didn’t know who to trust except her sister.

The guards stepped out, swords raised, and Shona tensed, then nearly cried out with relief when she saw David was on duty. He liked her and would let her pass without question. “The king has been killed,” she said, waving a hand behind her, holding her breath in fear and hope.

Looking shocked, David motioned to the other guard, and they ran into the darkness, toward Yearger, who was surely not far behind. She didn’t waste a breath. She hurtled through the gates, moving purposely into the shadows of the inner courtyard to avoid anyone seeing her. Grace would be in the healing room. She was almost always there, fixing poultices, mixing tonics, and tending the sick and injured. Shona took the steep, narrow stone steps down to the healing room, and when she saw the big wooden door at the end of the small tunnel, she nearly burst into tears.

She raced to the door and slung it open, then more or less fell through the entrance. The pungent smell of mugwort hit her instantly. Across the candlelit room, her sister and a stranger straightened from their positions hunched over a table littered with herbs, ointment, and pots, and she met her sister’s blue eyes. In front of Grace, something swirled above a red pot like a rising mist, drawing Shona’s attention, and for a moment, she stared, transfixed. Some people said Grace was ban-druidh, but Shona knew her sister was no witch. But she also knew Grace often visited the fae in the Dark Forest to get potions from the fairies that supposedly helped people heal.

“Shona!” Grace called out, rushing around the table to grasp her.

Shona slumped into her sister’s warm embrace for a heartbeat, wishing away the day, the death of the king, and her part in it. Good God above, would she be hanged for being foolish? If she wasn’t killed by the true conspirators first, that was. She disentangled herself from Grace’s arms and stepped back, looking between Grace and the other woman in the room.

Grace waved a hand toward the woman with hair like flame and eyes the color of blue lightning. “Shona, this is Maggie—”

“I need to speak with ye alone,” Shona interrupted, the desperation coursing through her and making her tone sharper than she had intended.

“Aye.” Her sister nodded, her gaze sweeping over Shona, who knew she must look a fright. Grace did not lean toward hysterics, and even now, concern only showed in the slight rise of Grace’s blond eyebrows. Her sister turned toward Maggie. “Do ye mind if—”

“Of course nae,” the woman said. “I barged in on ye, after all. Could I return tomorrow as we discussed?”

“Aye,” Grace said, already moving toward the door with determined steps. Shona slumped against the medicine table with relief. Grace would know what to do. She had to know how to fix this mess.

Shona worried her lip, trying to keep from unraveling before Maggie could leave, so when the door finally shut behind her, Shona burst into tears and buried her face in her hands.

Grace was there, one hand under Shona’s chin, lifting her face while she offered a rag with the other hand to wipe away her tears. Her sister frowned, and her gaze became assessing. Shona knew that look. Grace was considering Shona’s injuries and how to treat her. But there was no time to worry about cuts and bruises.

“This,” Shona said, motioning to her minor injuries, “is nothing compared to what will be done to me if they find me.”

Grace’s brow furrowed. “Who are ‘they’?”

Shona skirted around her sister and moved to the door, sliding the slab of wood into place to bar the entrance. How long would that hold when they came for her? She had no doubt someone would. Yet, Yearger was a traitor who had clearly plotted to kill King Alexander, so he would have to be careful in how and where he killed her, wouldn’t he?

“Shona?” Grace snapped her fingers in front of Shona’s face, startling her. She had not even realized Grace had crossed the room. “Who are ‘they’?” she repeated.

Fear made Shona tremble, but she reached her shaking hands out to grasp her sister’s. “‘They’ are traitors. Conspirators. I don’t know how many there are. King Alexander is dead.” At those words, all the color drained from Grace’s face. Shona swallowed and continued. There was worse news to deliver. “I fear I helped kill him,” she whispered, her heart beating in her throat.

“God’s blood,” Grace muttered, her gaze flying to the door then back to Shona. “Will someone be—”

“Coming for me?” Shona interrupted again. “Aye. I’m certain they will, but I can nae say who or when. But I doubt they will be verra long in the coming.”

Grace squeezed Shona’s hands, hard. “Tell me what ye know.”

“Deirdre Irvine summoned me this morning and gave me a note that she said Queen Yolande wanted delivered to King Alexander. I left almost immediately with Yearger and two other guards, Loxton and Nigel, to ride to the king in Edinburgh.”

“Do ye have any notion what the message said?” Grace asked.

Shona nodded. “Aye, I was in the great hall when King Alexander read it aloud because the queen’s words amused and pleased him. She beseeched the king to come to her, despite the hour and the weather. She said she was desperate to be with him.”

Grace shook her head. “Queen Yolande would nae have put King Alexander in such peril by asking him to ride out in this weather.”

“I agree,” Shona said, her gaze returning to the door for a moment before looking at her sister again. “I was sent on to return here ahead of the king. He said he would be following after he concluded some business. Yearger accompanied me. Sister—” she shuddered as she recalled what had happened “—Yearger tried to stab me.”

Grace gasped. “What?”

Shona nodded. “I escaped him and ran, and that’s when I saw the king riding toward me, well ahead of all his men but Nigel, who I could hear encouraging the king to ride faster and harder. I also saw Loxton crouched low behind a rock. When the king turned the corner, Loxton jumped up and scared the king’s horse. And the horse…” Shona paused and swallowed, tears filling her eyes. “The horse threw the king off and over the edge of the cliff! Neither Nigel nor Loxton made a move to stop the tragedy. Grace, I think—”

“They planned it,” Grace finished, her face paled. “Do ye think Deirdre knew what the note contained?”

Shona bit her lip. “I can nae say for certain, but she seemed to, I suppose. She urged me to ride with haste, but…” She shrugged. “I hardly know her, though we have been ladies-in-waiting at Court together these last two years. Ye know how aloof she is.”

“Aye,” Grace agreed, a crease coming between her brows. “She is thick with her brother, too, so until we can prove otherwise, we must assume she knows. We need to—”

“Shh!” Shona interrupted, hearing what sounded like the pounding of footsteps upon stone.

“Open the door, Grace!” came Deirdre’s voice from outside the healing room. “I need to find Shona!”

Terror prickled Shona’s skin as she recoiled to the far side of the room.

“Grace,” Yearger called. “I must speak with Shona! Let us in. There’s been a tragedy.”

Shona couldn’t move. He was a liar. Black fright had her rooted to the spot but not Grace. She dashed across the healing room, stopped at the table to grab a cross and raced over to where Shona stood.

Banging started at the door, and the jangling of the handle echoed painfully in Shona’s ears.

“Shona,” Grace pleaded, her normally controlled demeanor gone.

That frightened Shona almost as much as the fact that every bone in her body told her that Yearger had come to finish what he’d begun.

“Do ye wish to die, then?” Grace demanded, her voice harsh. She shoved the cross against Shona’s chest. “Take this. Ye must be holding it for the spell to work.”

The words snapped Shona out of her stupor. She clasped the cool silver cross in her numb fingers and looked down at it. It had a star and an anchor set in the middle and four round, raised shiny balls set on each end of the cross.

“Clutch it tight, and—”

Whatever else Grace said was lost to Shona. All she could hear was the banging at the door, the beating of her heart, and the roaring of blood in her ears. Shona felt Grace’s warm touch on her hand for a moment, and then it was gone.

Her eyes locked on Shona’s. “Don’t worry, Sister. I’m sending ye home. I’ll come along shortly. Don’t lose the cross,” Grace said, and then she began to chant. “Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh. Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh. Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh.”

Over and over Grace recited the words until they were all Shona could hear, all she could think of, all she could feel.

Earth, air, fire, water, send her home.

She felt she was changing. Floating like the air, liquid like the water, and hot like fire. Fear twined around her heart and squeezed. “Grace.” Shona’s voice barely came out as a whisper. “What are ye doing?”

Grace’s hand cupped her cheek. “’Tis a travelling chant. Do nae worry. Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh. Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh. Talamh, èadhar, teine, uisge, ga cur dhachaigh.”

Terror clawed at Shona. “Grace, Grace, nay!” she tried to protest but no sound came out. The light was gone, and her vision tunneled to a single bright spot. Noise was all around her, inside her, outside her. Loud, screeching, ear-aching noise. Her lungs felt empty, her veins too full. Her heart was beating too fast not to burst. Something hit her, but nothing was there. She was in a violent storm of chaos, and then…she wasn’t.

Everything went silent and black except the thump, thump, thump of her heart.

Then it all flooded back. Light. Odd sounds. Even odder smells. Strange voices. Male. Female. Male again.

She blinked her eyes and opened them. She screamed as something blurred by her, a weird, extremely loud sound coming from it.

“Watch it, lady!” someone yelled from behind her. “You tourists think you own New Orleans! Get out of the road!”

The air whooshed out of her lungs in fright. Wherever she was, it was

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