TThe question hung in the air like the heavy, inescapable stench of charred flesh or rotted meat. Everyone’s eyes held the same breathless and hopeful expectation as they stared at her. Kylah worried a part of her cheek with her teeth. What was she supposed to be feeling at this moment? What was the acceptable response they expected her to convey? She supposed she could react one of two ways. Anger and betrayal. How could you, my sister, marry the brother of the vile Laird who murdered us all? He carries their poisonous blood in his veins. I’ll never forgive you for this… et cetera and so on. Or she could side with her youngest sister, Kamdyn, and her mother, Elspeth. I trust your judgment and am ready to give the new MacKay Laird a chance to make you happy and right the wrongs done to our family… Heaping platitudes of magnanimous forgiveness and such until everyone’s worries were laid to rest. Kylah studied the pale green glow she cast on the warm rugs and tapestries littering her mother’s new cottage. Since she’d refused to move into the keep with the MacKay Laird, Rory had bequeathed to Elspeth a lovely warm home close to the castle so her eldest, Katriona, or Kathryn as she was now known, would be able to visit her family often. A kindness Kylah supposed she should be grateful for on her mother’s behalf. She no longer had to worry about her comfort and survival. Elspeth now had a living daughter to care for her. Gratitude.
Relief. Yet more emotion she was supposed to experience but didn’t. She searched her soul for the warmth of sisterly affection and compassion, or the heat of rage brought on by the pain of disloyalty. But found—emptiness. Less than that. She stood at the edge of a black, gaping abyss and kept squinting and straining to see the bottom like a bloody fool. She couldn’t very well reach into it and pluck out an answer. It contained nothing. She was nothing. No one.
Therefore, why did her opinion even matter? Why was it her responsibility to grant them absolution for something they were going to do regardless? Because she was the only one who had been violently raped before she died? “Kylah, dear, whatever you’re thinking you can just say it outright.” Kamdyn drifted toward her and leaned the specter of her shoulder next to Kylah’s to show support. In fact, their outlines overlapped as the dead could no longer touch the living. Or each other. They just floated above the floor, little more than ghosts. Ineffectual Banshees. “What do you feel about Laird Rory and Katriona being married?” she repeated the question. Kylah flicked a glance at the Laird in question. Even stone-faced and grim, Rory MacKay didn’t resemble his twin brother Angus in the slightest. With the tall, broad frame of a mythic warrior, his handsome features consisted of different variations of bronze.
Light hair, amber-hued eyes, and sun-kissed skin had once contrasted with the ugly pallor of his brother’s ruddy complexion. Rory wore pity and remorse like a cloak, but hid defiance beneath it like a concealed dirk. He didn’t take responsibility for his brother’s actions, though they shamed and angered him. Katriona stood next to her husband, hand clutched within his large palm, her eyes pleading for understanding. Kylah latched on to them, for Katriona’s eyes were the only thing that remained her own. The rest of her body had once belonged to Kathryn Frasier, Rory’s bride. Where she’d once favored her sisters, tall and slim with long, mahogany hair, she now resembled a Nordic princess. Blond curls tangled down her back, tamed with a circlet and braids. Pale skin touched with a golden hue covered lush curves most women only dreamed of possessing. Katriona had never been a great beauty, but Kylah missed the honest angles of her sister’s expressive face.
The one she’d had before it was melted away in the fire Rory’s brother had ignited. Elspeth was the hardest to look at. And not because of the shiny, painful burn scars on her face, but the softer way she regarded Rory MacKay. With a little kindness, he’d won over her mother, but Kylah and Kamdyn remained unconvinced. Elspeth reached out to Kylah, like she’d done so many times in the months since she’d spoken the olde words that’d turned her murdered daughters into Banshees. “Kylah, love, don’t you want your sister—” “It’s fine.” Kylah drifted back from her mother and attempted to force inflection into her answer, but from the looks on their faces, she’d failed utterly. “Fine?” Kamdyn echoed. “Are you certain? You don’t sound—” “I said its fine,” Kylah insisted. “I can feel that he loves her, and that she loves him.
Is anything we say going to change that? Or have any effect on how they’ve chosen to live their lives together?” Katriona and Rory looked at each other. His strong hand tightened around hers, and his solemn eyes softened with unabashed affection. “Nay,” Katriona murmured. “But we came here to explain. It happened so fast. We wanted to give you all a chance to express your feelings or concerns over what has transpired.” “I have none.” Katriona’s brow wrinkled. A familiar expression on a foreign face. “None of which, feelings or concerns?” Either.
Both. She could pick one. “I’ve told you it’s all right.” Kylah hoped those words fared better than fine. They were all she had to give them. “Your feelings have to be more complicated than that, sister.” “They’re not.” “But dearheart…” Elspeth stepped forward once more and Kylah again retreated. It was a struggle to look at her mother. Not because of Elspeth’s disfigured face, but because of the hurt and pity etched into her gaze.
Her mother always reminded Kylah of that night. Because she’d been forced to watch. And Kylah relived those terrible moments before her death through the unspeakable horror in her mother’s eyes. 2 Spring had come early to the Highlands, and though Kylah could feel no heat, the setting sun gave off an illusion of warmth that proved almost as effective. Drifting aimlessly, she sought to lose herself among the emerald moors to the north and west of Durness. But even without the wild pulse of the waves to guide her, every dark loch, craggy knoll, and mossy plane on MacKay lands was achingly familiar. She’d explored them all as a girl, marked them, and learned of their names from sweet Carraig MacKay, the fisherman. She wondered if she’d made a clean escape from her mother’s home. Thinking back on it, she couldn’t exactly remember what she’d said before plunging through the walls and into the rare Highland sunshine. In the narrow alley, Hugh MacKay had accidentally walked through her, and the strange contact unsettled them both.
Hugh, because he’d felt an icy and invisible chill reach into his bones despite the warm sunlight. And Kylah because it had felt as though he might rip away another part of her soul as they disengaged. Another man inside her without her permission. More contact than she was willing to allow. Durness was too full of people. Of memories. Of emotions and desires not her own. Contentment and hope swelled within her clan at the dawn of a new spring. Their Laird had money and there were crops to be planted. The plague of witchcraft had passed on the night of Rory’s wedding, as suddenly as it had appeared.
Everyone rejoiced. Kylah couldn’t bear it, so she’d sought the solitude of the wilderness. Reaching the swift waters of the Kyle, she levitated over and idly wondered why some people considered walking on water so bloody miraculous. All one needed was a bit if Faerie magic. Her constant aura reached the western shore before she did and Kylah grimaced as she watched it spread out on the rocks before her, casting the growing shadows in her sickly green glow. Her sisters’ auras had always been a bright and eerie blue. Why not hers? Kylah’s head snapped up from where she contemplated the ground. A strong ocean wind ruffled the grasses of the moor and brought with it a faint call of something she’d encountered before and never forgotten. A response rose inside her with a dark and powerful allure, drawing her toward the phenomenon before she made the conscious decision to follow it. Highland streams and lochs flew past her with more speed than the swiftest horse.
The Cearbhag River split around the Cearbhag Dune and crawled through the golden shore of the tiny bay of the same name. The Allt Dubh or River Black spilled across the same sands where both rivers were claimed by the roiling waves of the ocean. Named for the fine dark silt embedded beneath the clear waters, the River Black was notorious across the Highlands for a singular reason that had nothing to do with its rare earth. And everything to do with the infamous man who lurked along its banks. Beyond the beach, the land lifted to the large and ancient cliff face. Kylah followed the precipice, her insides rolling and crashing in time with the loud incoming tide that was hurling itself against the stones. She’d reached the edge of the world. Or at least, the edge of Scotland. Cape Wrath, it was named, by the numberless hordes of Norsemen who’d tried to overtake her inhospitable shores. Time and time again they were driven back by the perilous sea and the remarkable clans strong and formidable enough to carve out a life here.
They then chose other beaches from which to launch their assaults. It was wrath which drew her all the way out here. It pulsed from the black rock. From the waves. From—somewhere beneath her. Not only wrath, but a hopeless misery, a cold fury stewed and stormed with rebellious opposition to the lovely sunset. Kylah stepped off the edge of the cliff and dropped to the ocean below. Enormous sprays of water clashing with stone showered through her as she surveyed the rocks. There. To the left of the jagged rock, a shadowed cleft slashed through the cliff face.
To the naked eye, it appeared shallow, but if one noted the break in the agitated water as it flowed deep into the gap, it would be recognized as a sheltered ocean cave. This was what she’d been looking for. As she floated past the entrance, the black sea that had churned beneath her calmed in contrast to the stirring hatred emanating from the depths of the cavern. Her weak glow acted as an insufficient lantern as the twilit Highland sky disappeared, replaced by smooth rock hollowed out by untold millennia of tides. The place had an ancient, sacred grief beneath all the darkness. As though evil had overrun a holy place. Beyond the narrow passage, the water smoothed into a clear pool that reflected her light back at her as it became shallower, until the stone rose above the water and created a shelf. Kylah drifted to the ledge and peered into the shadows. She couldn’t tell how far back the cavern extended, and didn’t care. She liked the illusion of blackness pressing in on all sides, threatening to overwhelm her pitiful glow.
Turning, she sank to her knees and let the yawning darkness of the grotto engulf her. Her face reflected back at her in the still waters, and it captivated her. This was the first time she’d seen herself since she’d died. The features in the water belonged to her, but were unrecognizable. The same heavy-lashed green eyes responded to her blink, but remained dull and vacant. Kylah brought trembling fingers to her face, almost stunned that her reflection did the same. Despite the unflattering pale green glow, and the sunken pallor she’d adopted in death, she was still beautiful. Stunningly so. She’d once considered herself fortunate to have possessed such prominent cheek bones and a delicate chin. She reached out a hand and slapped at the pool.
Of course, nothing happened. No ripples interrupted her perfect nose. She did it again. Deeper this time, harder, a sound frustration escaping her throat when, again, her hand passed through the water without creating the slightest ripple. A bleak yet passionate rage oozed from walls she could not see, snaking toward her like an unseen predator. This. This was the emotion she needed to conjure. This strange antithesis of unfulfilled pain bordering on hysteric madness. This manic loneliness. It surged through her with a sensation she’d thought lost within the husk of her flesh now turned to ashes.
Her hands curled to fists as she flailed at the water. The face that remained unharmed still crumpled into an accusatory snarl as it hurled raw grunts that echoed about the cavern. Never in her life had she raised her voice. Not in anger, nor silliness, nor competition. People stopped when she spoke in her silky tones to listen to her. They watched her lips move and hung on every word. The night of her death, they’d silenced her with their hands, smothering her frightened pleas. She’d tried to scream once the flames had begun to devour her, but peals of smoke had mercifully stopped her breath and filled her throat. She’d never screamed. They did.
Not. Let. Her. Scream. In the water, her pupils disappeared, swallowed by a frighteningly powerful illumination. Her glow coalesced into tentacles of light that lashed into the darkened corners of the grotto. Her grunts became cries, and her cries became a wail. Then her scream fractured into many. Until one was a roar and another a screech, and yet another a keen that reached such a pitch that it shook the stones and vibrated through the water. Now ripples distorted her reflection and drowned out the sounds of the ocean.
To her it was a lovely symphonic melody, crafted of hatred and vengeance. She drew on whatever sinister emotion she could grasp as it was flung at her from somewhere in the darkness and intensified it. As she endlessly screamed, she also reveled. She grieved. She cursed. It felt marvelous. A loud crack reverberated off the stone walls and sliced through her keen. Kylah could feel its percussion carve through the vibrations her pitch created, and the sensation stunned her to stillness. “Haud yer Wheesht, woman!” The deep command issued from everywhere and nowhere. It could have come from the Gods, if she hadn’t known better.
But she did. She recognized the voice immediately and knew who lurked in the darkness behind her without turning to look. The Druid, Daroch McLeod. Kylah squeezed her eyes shut. What was he doing in here? This cave was nigh impossible to get to. She’d thought she was alone. “Ye shouldna be here.” His growl lashed at her from the walls like a cornered predator, accusing her of trespassing in a succession of echoes. “Leave.” “Why?” she breathed, watching her glow crawl back toward her, the intensity of terrible emotions smothered by a simple, pervasive curiosity.
“Because ye doona belong here.” His voice favored the cavern in which they stood. Cold. Dark. A mysterious, unfathomable chasm hidden among wild peril. “But I was… called here.” She’d meant to insist, but her chest suddenly felt too small to call forth much volume. “Nay. Ye werena. Now go away,” he clipped Kylah scowled.
Who was he to tell her where to go? And so rudely! Anguish nigh forgotten, she whirled to face him, but was met with only darkness. “Why?” she demanded. “Why do you want me to go away?” Not the most brilliant of questions, but valid nonetheless. The blackness was silent for so long, she wondered if he’d been the one to retreat. “Because I—doona want to look at ye.” Kylah gasped. She’d expected him to reference her Banshee keen, or her glow disturbing the darkness he so obviously desired. But his answer shocked and incensed her so completely she would have been struck dumb if she’d still been alive. What did her looks have to do with anything?