The great hall of Banff Castle was overflowing with people, laughing and making merry with tankards of ale clutched in their clammy hands. It was a special occasion, the celebration of the birthday of Gavin, the heir to the Lairdship of the Comyn Clan. Kenna, his sister, had been looking forward to the occasion for days. She had dressed finely for the event, with a fitted blue plaid dress and sprigs of bluebells decorating the plaits of her long brown hair. She straightened the creases of the dress as she squeezed through the gaps of the boisterous guests, darting her eyes to and fro in search of one person. Someone whose company she sought more than any others these days. Ever since she had met Iomhar, Kenna was convinced her future was entwined with his. Nephew to the Laird Udair Campbell, they had met at one of the feasts at Banff castle, and from the moment she laid eyes on him, she felt her life had altered. He took her breath away, with tall, curly black hair and a handsome smile. She had been drawn to him across the room, only to find in conversation he was just as enthralling as in appearance. He was always jesting, playful and determined to make light of matters. Who could not be charmed by such a man? She liked to imagine there was this invisible thread that connected the two of them. One that made them always draw near to each other. They were courting, and though Kenna’s brother was warning of caution, claiming their relationship was moving too quickly, she did not agree. She would sometimes sneak out of the castle at night to go and meet Iomhar on the cliffs.
There they would sit for hours at a time, under the stars, talking of everything and stealing kisses from one another in the darkness. She sought him out now, still fussing with her dress, wondering if he would like it. She had been searching for many minutes now with no sign of him. She moved to the edge of the room, trying to reach the outskirts of the revelers and take a breath from the heat of the room. It brought her into the shadows of the hall, between the tallow candles that lit the space, allowing her to scan the room with ease. Is that Iomhar? She thought she caught a glimpse of his curly black hair. She smiled at the sight of his handsome smile and began to move around the edge of the room, her hand on the wall to direct her. It is him! As she moved nearer, he stepped to the side, revealing he was talking to another young woman. He had not noticed Kenna was nearby. Kenna hesitated in her steps, still holding onto the wall as she watched him.
He was holding the same smirk that he usually only saved for her. She felt her own smile falter slightly, curious as to the woman who could summon that smile. She watched as the woman with Iomhar closed the distance between them with a kiss. Kenna clutched the wall behind her, feeling the shock and pain wash over her, as though she had been struck with a wave of the ocean. “Kenna? What is wrong?” It was Gavin’s voice. She barely glanced at him as her brother reached his side. She gestured with her hand toward Iomhar, unable to explain; Gavin followed her hand, his own eyes widening in realization. “Kenna, I —” “Please daenae say anythin’,” Kenna begged him, feeling the tears pool in her eyes. Iomhar had just torn her heart from her chest. She had been convinced he would be the love of her life, yet here was the proof before her eyes that he cared no more for her than just a passing fancy in the night.
“It appears ye were right,” she murmured to Gavin, realizing all his warnings were true. She sniffed, holding back her tears before they could start. She would not reveal in public just how hurt she was. I willnae crumble now. Nae here. Nae in front of all these people. “Nay, Kenna. I am so sorry, can I —” “It doesnae matter.” She shrugged, trying to end the conversation as quickly as possible. She had to extricate herself from the situation.
She could not bear to pretend to be happy all evening now. She did not want to talk to Iomhar, to hear his excuse, or to confront him with it. “I am sorry, Gavin, but I have suddenly come over a little tired. I will retire to me room for the night.” It was a good excuse, a good way to retreat to her room before anyone could see her cry. She could hold the tears back for a little bit, but not for too long. “Kenna —” “No more, Gavin.” She walked away before he could say anything else. “It doesnae matter.” She looked away from Iomhar, aware he was still kissing the young woman.
It hurt, a physical pain deep in her stomach. She hurried from the sight, leaving Gavin far behind her and the rest of the revelers, determined to escape unseen. Once free of the great hall, she allowed a small dip in the cool façade she was wearing. She ran, sprinting through the castle in her haste to be alone. As she reached her chamber, she crumpled. She tore the bluebell sprigs from her hair and cast them to the floor as the tears came. He doesnae love me. He was kissin’ another! She sank to the floor, resting her head on her knees to try to stop the tears. She felt such a fool. He is nae the man I thought he was.
K CHAPTERONE 4 Years Later enna looked out at the horizon, clutching the parchment of Iomhar’s letter tightly between her fingers. She shifted it between her hands, trying not to look at the handwriting and keep her gaze on the scenery instead. Iomhar had asked her to meet him in a place that had once meant a lot to both of them. As Kenna looked between the rocks now, it only left her feeling empty. She stood on top of a rocky outcrop near the edge of some cliffs gazing out to the sea. Behind her were the highland moors, dappled with white frost from the winter morning. She was standing on the frost-covered path, which led up to a large stone shaped like a fish. They called it the Rock Salmon. There was a myth about the rock whispered down at the nearest town in Banff. It was said that the fish was a monster who would swim in the shallows of Banff port and swallow fishermen.
The great salmon was turned to stone one day by the goddess Danu and deposited on the cliff edge. Four years ago, the Rock Salmon was the special meeting place Kenna and Iomhar used to hide away from prying eyes. In the evenings, they would sneak out of their family homes and come to such a place. Kenna now stood on the rock, feeling the wind whip against her face with growing anger. She passed the parchment between her hands once more, frustrated by Iomhar’s letter, wondering why after so long he wanted to meet now. Their courtship had ended so suddenly at the birthday feast for Kenna’s brother, Gavin, four years ago. Kenna had seen that girl kissing Iomhar. She had not seen him since, and he had not tried to explain either. What Kenna once considered their love disappeared between her fingers. She liked to imagine love as something that was as strong as the waves of the ocean.
It could pummel you, leaving you winded, yet try to grab it, and it slipped between your fingers. That was what had happened to her at any rate. She could hear horses’ hooves nearby, echoing along the wind. She turned away from the green waves that were rumbling below and looked into land. She could see just a speck in the distance. It had to be Iomhar on the horse, riding to meet her. His letter had come so out of the blue that it had unsettled her. She had thought she had moved past the pain of his betrayal, that their courtship was but a distant memory, but having been faced with his letter, it had stirred up her old pain. It made her realize that the pain he had caused her had never really gone away. She had only learned to live with it instead, stamping down on it and adopting a countenance that would not show her true feelings.
If she were ever to let go of the pain, she supposed she would have to see him again. The blandness of his letter requesting the meeting did not speak of their past relationship. It made no acknowledgement of their former connection at all and used a formal tone. Gavin had not wanted to let her go to meet Iomhar, knowing what pain the man had caused her before, but she had told him it was a necessity. Aye, if I see him, then maybe I can let go of the pain at last. She kept her chin high as the horse grew nearer across the horizon. She wrapped the grey wolfskin around her shoulders to keep warm as the wind whistled up from the sea and the cliff edge, pinching her cheeks with the cold and forcing her long brown hair to billow behind her. The horse was near now; it slowed to a gentle canter, revealing someone sat atop the grey highland pony. She could see a little more of the figure—he was dressed in a black tunic and hose, his stance large and imposing, even from the top of the horse. He wore a cloak too, navy blue with his hood pulled up over his head and belted around his waist.
The horse slowed to a trot, climbing the last of the hill toward where Kenna stood. She was tempted to shift and fidget, her body tight with nerves now he was so close. She pushed his letter into the pocket of her plaid dress and tried to stay as still as possible. She did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing that he made her nervous. As he came nearer, Kenna realized that she wanted to see him again, despite the pain. She had wondered many times over the last four years how much Iomhar had changed, and this was her opportunity to find out. She kept her chin high as the horse came to a stop at the bottom of the rocky camber that led to where she stood, her pride refusing to let her give way to her emotions. She pictured herself as hard as the Rock Salmon on which she stood, just as impervious and just as strong. The figure climbed down from the horse, with his head turned up to where Kenna stood. From how low the hood was, she still could not see Iomhar’s face.
He slowly walked up the camber toward her, his leather boots firm on the rocky ground. She realized she had forgotten how tall he was. He cut a striking figure as he stepped up the camber, the wind picking up the edges of the navy coat and buffeting it around his legs. Kenna had waited for this moment for long enough. Being unable to see his face was making her grow frustrated. “If ye daenae lower yer hood, how do I ken it is ye?” she called to him, seeing his feet stop beneath him, leaving them little distance away from each other. “I think ye would ken me anywhere, Kenna.” There was the lilting humor in his voice that she had known before. It unsettled her, prompting her to pull at the grey wolfskin around her shoulders again, as though she was trying to block out the cold when in reality, she was trying to stop the effect he had on her. He had always been so playful in his manner, constantly jesting, rarely taking any moment seriously.
It was what had drawn her to him in the first place. She had thought with the passing of the years, he would have matured and lost that affable manner. “It has been a while. I may be mistaken with so little to go on.” Kenna pursued the matter. She wanted to see his face. “Lift yer hood.” He did not object this time, but neither did he lift his hood completely. He just pulled it back a little, revealing his face to her and a glimpse of his hair. It was Iomhar, but not the Iomhar she had known.
He was older. His curly black hair that was once short was a touch longer, curling around his ears and forehead. His eyes were just as dark as she remembered, black and staring at her. Yet his face was more carved by the years, and he had grown a beard too, short though unkempt, making him look ragged rather than the Laird’s nephew he really was. There was a scar too on his cheek that had not been there before, a short white fleck, as though from a blade. “Do ye recognize me now?” he asked, his voice still humored though he did not smile. He was handsome. He had grown more so in the four years since their last meeting. The sight of him made Kenna’s mouth a little dry, suddenly parched with thirst. “Ye are greatly changed.
” She tilted her head to the side, watching him closely. His figure had also altered through the years. He was now broader, much more toned with muscle than she remembered. The sight was not a welcome one. She had hoped he had lost his good looks; it would have made it easier to be indifferent to him. “So are ye.” He tilted his head to the side, too, mirroring her stance as he looked at her. She did not like his analyzing gaze and sought to change the subject quickly. “I am nae here for idle conversation.” She looked down away from him, breaking their connected gaze and the effect he had on her.
“Why did ye want to see me?” “This is nae the place for it.” He shook his head. He began to walk up the camber again, moving nearer to her. It made her back away. “Careful, Kenna, ye will fall off the cliff.” “I would prefer it to being so close to ye,” she quipped, flicking her chin high once more. Her words brought a small smirk to his lips. “I see ye are still bitter.” He winced, moving to her side and looking down at the sea below. “It is a while since we were last here.
” She did not like the image he had formed of her. “Nae bitter, just nae interested in being here for longer than I have to be.” She moved away from him to the other side of the Rock Salmon. “Why did ye wish to meet with me?” “As I said, we cannae talk here.” He gestured to the landscape. “Why nae? There is no one here.” She glanced around the empty frost-covered hills. “Ye would see them for miles.” “In me recent experience, I ken people can hide anywhere.” He looked back at her.
“Besides, I am tired from me journey. Hungry too. Let’s go to the Black Sheep Inn down the hill.” “Near Banff?” The thought of being seen with him again in public was abhorrent to her. “Nay. I have come here to meet ye as ye have requested. Talk to me here. I am nae takin’ ye to Banff.” “Why nae? Are ye afraid to be seen with me, Kenna?” His mischievous side was coming through. “I am nae fond of the idea,” she said in return, seeing her words made him frown.
“Calm yerself. I will keep me hood up.” He walked past her and pulled his hood higher for emphasis. “No one will ken it is me.” He reached the bottom of the camber and took hold of his horse’s reins, making clear his intent to walk the horse down from the cliffs to the inn. “I am nae goin’ to the inn.” Kenna stood her ground, refusing to follow. “Ye will, as I am goin’,” he began to lead the horse away. “I am nae goin’,” she reiterated, calling after him.