Master of the Highlands – Veronica Wolff

The teacup slipped from her knotted fingers and landed in the saucer with a sharp clink. Sighing, the old woman massaged her aching knuckles. There had been a day long ago when the thrill of youth had infused her like a flame burning bright, and though she was never what one would call beautiful, her head of shining honey-colored curls had framed an easy, irreverent smile and perpetually flushed cheeks. And now she was no more than an old mystery, the subject of children’s fireside tales. Kindlier folk recognized her as wise or, at worst, benignly eccentric, wielding the wisdom of her many years through the prism of an otherworldly insight. Others called her witch, made warding signs with their fingers, and covered their children’s heads at the mere mention of her name. Her name. She didn’t recall the last time she’d heard her Christian name. She doubted anyone but herself even remembered it. She speculated that she had been known only as Gormshuil for generations now. Perhaps as long as it would’ve taken for the children who were robbed from her to see babes of their own grown into men. Gormshuil, such an ugly word. Gormshuil, the blue-eyed one. Named for her ghostly eyes, pale blue like a hazy summer sky bled of its color. Gormshuil studied the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup.

They clumped into a black and glistening half moon, a portentous omen that clashed with the delicate pink roses printed on her tea service. It had been a gift when she was a new bride, a lifetime ago. Since then, she’d sold off all of her other possessions, but she still couldn’t bring herself to part with the old china. To use it every day, to see the pattern that she had loved when she was just a pretty girl who liked pretty things, was to feel grief’s sharp grip fresh on her throat. She vowed that she would never let that anguish soften into numb memories of sadness and regret. Her pain was what defined her now and she would have it keen, bearing it like a spike in her belly. No woman should have to endure outliving her family. And in such a way. Her man and her boys had been suddenly cut from her life with a matter-of-fact violence that gave birth to a kernel of hatred and a dream of vengeance that for many years were the only things that got her to swing her feet over the side of the bed and plant them each agonizing morning once again on the ground. Gormshuil studied the tiny pink blooms and remembered how Fergus had worked so hard to surprise her, away for almost a full fortnight he was, traveling all the way to Edinburgh to buy the fragile china.

She had never known she could ever own something so lovely. Bearing blooms like the roses in her cheeks, he had said. The old witch pushed the absurdly delicate cup away and silently ridiculed herself and her small indulgence. One like her could ill afford sentimentality. Society hadn’t taken kindly to a solitary woman, and after the deaths of her husband and boys, she was forced to get by as well as she could on her wits alone. A wry smile turned at the corners of her mouth. As well as she could had been well enough indeed. Her Fergus had always lovingly mocked those “women’s arts” that she had learned from her grandmother. Gormshuil had known the sexes and birth dates of all her bairns when they were no more than slugs in her belly. And she had also known how to slip the dwamie babe she’d known would be too weak for this earth.

Small good any of her foresight or talents did when she hadn’t even been able to save her own family. Her wry smile turned bitter. An indifferent enemy claimed their lives and left her to die. But die she didn’t, and all that had remained to forge her own survival were her accursed arts and a heart so weakened she could barely see the green side of winter each year. It was when she was forced to rely on her craft as a livelihood rather than a hearthside pastime that she truly refined her skills. She was canny enough to make herself valuable to those in society who wielded power, those seeking one who understood discretion as much as sorcery. Rather than the folk remedies and fortune-telling of the old spey-wives who were likely as not to end their days on a burning stake, Gormshuil learned the divination of unseen dangers and portents. She ingratiated herself to those with the real influence in the Highlands. And thus a mourning and destitute widow fashioned herself the Witch of Moy. As she did every day, more times a day than she could count, Gormshuil took a deep breath and willed herself to endure just a bit more.

Soon she would join Fergus and her boys. But this was not the day. She studied the cup, turning it around and around as the cold brown tea puddled in the saucer. The old woman was agitated. It was her sixth cup that day and still the leaves told her the same thing. One comes. Chapter 1 Lochaber, February 1654 Ewen rose before dawn to run through the series of sword poses that he had rehearsed every morning for over fifteen years. Black hair loose past his shoulders, naked but for his long linen shirt and the blade at his back, he put himself through his paces. The claymore had belonged to his father and was too large to carry on his waist by his side. Instead, Ewen had fashioned a scabbard of leather and silver so that, when sheathed, the sword hilt rose from between his shoulder blades.

Ewen raised both arms, reached behind his head to grasp the sweat-and bloodstained leather grip, and slowly withdrew his weapon. Deadly sharp, the steel blade hissed as he raised it above his head. It was a slow and deliberate dance, with a sword that most people would not be able to lift with one hand. Up on one foot, down to bended knee, he struck and parried an unseen enemy. By the time the sun started to peek through the mottled glass of his bedroom windows, Ewen was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, his rippling muscles taut and pumped from the exertion. A knock on his door startled Ewen out of his reverie. “Aye, come,” he grunted. The heavy, brass-studded door opened a crack and Katherine, the homely, plump-cheeked housemaid, peeked in. “Would you like me to fix you a bath, m’lord?” As she spoke, she noticed the laird’s state of undress. Although his shirt reached nearly to his knees, Kat’s cheeks flamed.

She had bathed him herself when he was just a babe and she a girl of fifteen, but Ewen was clearly a youth no more. The sight of this half-clothed six foot four inch sweating warrior was too much for even a normally prudish old maid to ignore. Ewen, used to the assessing looks of women, spared her further discomfort with a brusque “No.” In clipped tones, he added, “I must meet Donald and the men. There’s water in the basin. That will do.” His voice was gravelly, deep, with a sultry heat like the crackling of a slow peat fire. It had changed at a young age, and quickly too. Kat marveled how at times the laird’s voice took on an almost gentle quality, incongruous for such an otherwise fierce man. Ewen noted the tender look that washed over the maid’s face.

A smile touched the corners of his eyes as he added, “Thank you, Kat.” She pulled her face out of the room and quickly pulled the door shut. Ewen removed his scabbard, peeled off his sweat-soaked shirt, and dipped his hands in the basin by his bedside. The water was bitterly cold from sitting out all night, but the icy rivulets streaming down his back and thighs were invigorating. The sensation sent a shiver up through his loins and he became hard despite the chill of the water. He smirked to himself and wondered whether it was the early hour or the coming mission that made him go erect. Ewen had all but shut women out of his mind, so he didn’t imagine that would be the cause. Not that he hadn’t appreciated a good tumble in his day, but after such a miserable marriage in his youth, he decided one wife per lifetime was quite enough. A clan chief needed to be discreet with his affairs, and Ewen had decided long ago that there was no place in his life for romance. At thirty-two, Ewen Cameron, seventeenth captain and chief of Clan Cameron, was younger than most other clan leaders.

Having faced the death of his father at a young age, Ewen was thrust quickly out of his childhood. His grandfather had been temporarily reinstated as chief and Ewen sent away for years of formal schooling. He returned, eager to trade his books for sword and targe, and so it was that his Uncle Donald fostered the boy until he was ready to lead the clan. Donald trained Ewen in the Highland warrior’s arts with a singular intensity, for the clan chief needed to be the strongest, the bravest, and the surest with his weapons. During battle, he would ride ahead of his clansmen, not putting his men in danger that he wouldn’t himself willingly embrace. The clan chief needed to be ready to accept his own death in order to protect his people, a lesson that Donald instilled into the youth with a near-ruthless rigor. Donald also understood that though a good warrior was skilled in the arts of war, it took a great warrior to understand honor and the needs of his people, and so impressed intellectual ideals and aspirations into his young charge. Unlike other boys in the clan, Ewen studied Latin, Greek, and French. While other youth spent their days clacking wooden training swords, Ewen’s uncle insisted he help with the house accounts. Ewen pulled a freshly laundered linen shirt from his wardrobe and dressed himself to fight.

A Highland warrior lived to defend his people and his honor, and most men had certain rituals they performed before battle. Some chose the company of women, others relied on prayer. For Ewen, it was methodical preparation—cleaning his weapons to a brilliant sheen, slowly honing steel until his sword and each of his three smaller blades could as easily split the finest hair as eviscerate a grown man. After lacing his shirt, he wrapped himself in a freshly cleaned swath of tartan, which he tightened at his waist with a brown leather belt and large silver buckle. Ewen then began the elaborate process of arming himself. He spread all of his weaponry onto the bed and systematically checked and double-checked each piece as he donned it. He concealed blades under the cuffs of each of his boots, tucked a dirk at his belt, and, finally, sheathed his prized claymore on his back. Ewen threw what remained of the wool tartan over his shoulder, fastening it with a silver brooch. He rubbed a bit of imagined tarnish, even though the Celtic hound shone from the polish he had given it the night before. Fingering the pin, Ewen invoked the memory of his father.

The laird smiled at his almost superstitious need to wear the token to battle, invested as it was with the nearmythic significance of a father’s last gift to his son. He would submit to no man. And, as his father’s before him, his men were known as the sons of the hound.


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