AN OWL FLEW over the village of Crannogan with an adder gripped in its talons. The snake hung limp like a fallen banner, its venomous fangs rendered useless in death, like spears and pikes clutched in the hands of corpses. A little girl sat outside the thatched hut she called home, still awake while the rest of the village slumbered peacefully. If only her father had stirred and gone looking for her when he found her bed empty, he might have seen the omen and picked up his broadsword. But she was too young to recognize the winged hunter’s warning. “Hoot, hoot!” She cupped her hands around her mouth and echoed the creature’s call. A more precise call echoed back, but she could not see the owl anymore. Still, it pleased her to hear it. Scouring the darkness for any sign of the majestic bird, she giggled and cupped her hands around her mouth once more. “Hoot, hoot!” The sound drifted back to her, closer and longer than before. She was about to hoot a third time, when a different sound cut off her childish excitement. Behind the wicker fencing at the front of the house up ahead, the dogs began to bark. She saw their slick, black bodies jumping up and down, trying to vault over the fence as they howled. What’s got ‘em so cross? Eager to find out, and with nothing else to entertain her, she got to her feet and crept over to the house opposite. Skirting down the side of the fencing, and keeping a safe distance from the growling dogs, she crouched low and squinted out into the gloom of the woodland beyond.
Those trees were the physical border between the lands of the Dunmore Clan and those of the Brodie Clan. A place that neither side dared to tread, lest it ignite an all-out war. Ma said nae to go near… She hesitated, wondering if that was where the owl had gone. Looking up at the shadowed branches, she saw no sign of it. And yet, there was a soft, strange rustle, coming from the woods. Like boars or roe deer snuffling about in the undergrowth. By now, the dogs were barking as if they were possessed, ramming at the fencing like they intended to charge right through it. The little girl eyed them, and started to feel a peculiar, chilling sensation creeping up her back. A prickle of fine hairs that warned of something terrible approaching. I dinnae think there’s a guard tonight.
At her young age, she thought the men of the village only patrolled when her father was given the duty. As he was fast asleep in his bed, snoring so loudly that she hadn’t been able to drift off, she figured there was no one standing sentinel over the village tonight. Unless the owl counted as a guardian. “What’s that?” she whispered aloud, as her intent stare picked up a hazy orange glow, flitting about between the trunks of the pines. Is it Wisps? Her mother had told her many a story about the Will-o’-the-Wisps that lived in those woods—spirits of the vengeful dead, who sought to lead people off the safe path and away to their doom. The little girl had often been suspicious that her mother was only telling her those tales so she wouldn’t wander off into the forest by herself. Now, she was starting to think her mother had been telling the truth. Dogs bark when there are spirits about. They can sense ‘em. It was another old wives’ tale that she had heard from her mother, but it was all starting to make sense in her young mind.
Terrified that she might come face-to-face with a ghost, or be led astray by the bobbing glow of the Wisps, the little girl tiptoed backward. She could not afford to be loud, in case they noticed her. Nevertheless, she kept her gaze fixed on the tree line, as the floating orange light drew closer to the perimeter. More joined the first, and soon, the entire woodland was filled with the burning glow. The little girl’s heart lurched into her throat as she backed all the way to her hut. She was just about to cross the threshold and rouse her father, so he could protect her from the evil spirits, when one of the orange lights passed across a face. It was only a flash, but the image would be seared into her memory for the rest of her days: a grizzled, monstrous creature, with flaming eyes and twisted lips, glowering at her. Violently, the monsters exploded out of the forest. A whole horde of them, wielding broadswords bigger than her, and holding blazing torches aloft. One charged straight for her, nostrils flaring like a bull, with eyes so dark and menacing they could only belong to a demon.
With the last shred of courage she had, she opened her mouth and unleashed a chilling scream into the darkness. “Get back!” her father’s voice bellowed, as he tore out of the hut and leapt in front of her, broadsword in hand. He swung the blade, just as the forest beast swung his, the clash of metal jarring in her ears. Overcome with terror, the last thing the little girl saw before she fainted was the monster’s chest, emblazoned with a dark red fist clutching a trio of arrows, surrounded by a golden circle that looked an awful lot like a belt. The crest of the Brodie Clan. C H A P T E R 1 VİOLENT THUDS, like the pounding of war drums, boomed through Jack Creighton’s skull. Bang, bang, bang. Still half-asleep, the Laird of Dunmore sat bolt upright in his bed. “Laird, ye need to wake yerself!” a voice yelled, sending Jack’s heart racing to a frantic beat. Cursing under his breath, he threw back the covers and ran for the door, rubbing his eyes to try and coax the last bit of sleepiness from them.
Drawing back the bolt, he wrenched the door open to find his man-at-arms, Kendrew Murray, hopping like a hare on hot coals. “It’s bad, Laird. There are folks streamin’ into the castle, carryin’ all they can. I’ve got some lads showin’ ‘em to any rooms what’re empty, but it’s a mess.” Even in the meagre glow of Kendrew’s tallow candle, Jack could see the wild whites of his friend’s blue eyes. Jack put his hand on Kendrew’s shoulder. “Would ye calm yerself and tell me what’s goin’ on? I cannae understand a word of what’s flappin’ off yer tongue.” Kendrew took a shallow breath. “Raids and skirmishes, Laird. The villages up at the border, they’ve all been hit.
I’ve got lasses and bairns screamin’ down there, that their lads are dead and their houses got razed to the ground. There’re others wailin’ that they were robbed. Anythin’ worth takin’, them bastards nabbed it. And then there’s others sobbin’ their hearts out that their lasses were forced.” Rage spiked abruptly through Jack’s chest. “Who did it? Did anyone catch a good look at ‘em?” “There’s a wee lass who saw ‘em attack, up by Crannogan Woods. Damn near died of fright when I tried to comfort her, but Moira took her to one side and managed to get some sense out of her. The lass said she saw a fist full of arrows.” Jack’s mood darkened. “The Brodie Clan.
It’s got to be.” “Aye, I’d say so. A few others said they thought they saw the colors an’ the crest of the Brodies, but the lass was the only one that saw it clearly.” “I thought they’d been too quiet of late,” Jack muttered. Those cretins were the thorn in his side that he just could not get rid of. That stubborn auld dobber willnae see sense ‘til all his men are dead or I teach him a lesson he’ll nae forget in a hurry. For as long as he could remember, the Dunmore Clan and the Brodie Clan had been locked in a stalemate. Nichol Donaldson, the Laird of Brodie, would send his men to pillage and kill and thieve. In retaliation, Jack—and his father before him—would launch a softer attack, having his men steal livestock and torch empty houses, or catch Brodie men and lash them to the back of their horses with their backsides bare, and slap them back to where they came from. “It isnae goin’ to end, is it?” Jack hissed, feeling his fury rise like a rash, up his throat.
“He willnae listen to reason, and he willnae stop. I cannae understand the man, when it serves neither of us to keep this stupidity goin’.” Kendrew’s breathing had returned to normal. “He’s envious of ye, Laird.” “Then why nae share in our prosperity, instead of tryin’ to scupper it at every opportunity?” Jack clenched his hands into fists. “We could trade between us, and all have a piece of fortune, but he willnae have it!” After his parents’ death six years ago, Jack had worked like an ox to ensure that his clan prospered under his leadership. He had increased the yield of crops and livestock. He had improved sanitation, and the living conditions of his people. He had even gone to other clan chiefs and held a parlay to repair any rifts that his father had torn asunder. All of them had attended, except one.
Nichol Donaldson. “I fixed every mistake my father made. Dunmore Castle has never fared better, and the people have never been happier, but that bampot is determined to rile me up and ruin everythin’ I’ve built here.” Jack shook his head in exasperation. “He’s taken it too far, this time. I’ll nae hear of Dunmore Clan lasses bein’ forced, and I’ll nae tolerate bairns and lasses screamin’ ‘cause their lads are dead. This isnae what I promised me clan, and it isnae what I promised me ma, afore she passed.” Kendrew squared his shoulders. “What do ye want us to do? Should I round up the lads and take ‘em to hit the Brodies back?” “Nay, Kendrew.” Jack’s mind raced with ideas.
“That’s what Donaldson wants us to do. He’ll take any excuse to attack us harder, next time. What I need to do is make sure there isnae a next time.” Kendrew frowned. “Call me a doaty, Laird, but I dinnae ken what ye’re sayin’. Are we nae fightin’ ‘em back this time?” “Donaldson has proven that retaliatin’ disnae make a bit of difference, so I need to be cleverer.” Jack scratched the stubble on his chin, still making up his mind about what would be the best course of action. “I need to see what he’s done. That’ll decide it for me.” Striding past Kendrew, Jack did not need the glow of a candle to find his way.
For twentysix years, he had called this castle home, and his brown eyes were keener than a fox’s, even in darkness. His bare feet padded softly through the labyrinth of arching hallways, where torches flickered sporadically in their sconces, lighting his path. Most of the wooden doors he passed had been flung open, where the castle inhabitants had clearly rallied to the desperation of the villagers flooding in. “Why did ye wait so long to wake me, Kendrew?” Jack said tersely. When it came to his people, he wanted to be the first one to welcome them into the safety of his castle. Yet, it seemed he was close to being the last. Kendrew hurried to catch up to Jack’s long strides. “I dinnae want to disturb ye ‘til I knew what was goin’ on. Moira only just got the wee lass to talk, else I’d have come sooner.” “If there is a next time, ye wake me first, d’ye hear?” Jack scolded.
Kendrew nodded, looking sheepish. “Aye, I will.” He paused. “Do ye ken that ye’re nae… properly dressed?” “Eh?” Jack looked down at his long, white shirt… and nothing else. He had been in such a rush to greet the villagers who had suffered that he had forgotten what he was wearing. Or not wearing. Rolling his eyes, he ducked into the nearest room with its door open, and found a stray kilt lying on a chair. Plucking it up, he headed back out into the hallway, and kept walking as he wrapped it around his waist. Fortunately, he had the sense to pick up a pin as well, to fasten the tartan into place. The last thing the poor villagers needed to see, after what they had been through, was the sight of their Laird’s kilt falling down.
Soon, he exited a curving stone stairwell and stepped out into the crowded courtyard, where his people thronged together in confusion. Those who lived at the castle seemed to be trying to help those from the outlying villages, but nobody seemed to know where to put them. Jack headed for a plinth in the center of the courtyard. With his strong arms, he pulled himself up and curved his large hands around his mouth. “Everyone, heed me!” The entire courtyard froze and heads turned in his direction. “I’ve just heard what happened, else I’d have been here to help ye sooner.” A ripple of curiosity drifted through the crowd. “I ken that a lot of ye are scared, and ye’ve had a fright this night,” he continued. “Dinnae fear, ‘cause there’s room for ye all here, ‘til we can see what’s been done to yer villages.” In the ensuing silence, his heart wrenched to hear the sound of whimpering children and sobbing women.
The menfolk tried to comfort their families as best they could, but Jack knew there had to be many out there who no longer had families. “Where’s me guard?” Jack peered into the mass of people, and his soldiers immediately marched forward, forming a uniform line. “I want ye to take five families, or lone folk, at a time. Put ‘em in the banquet hall. Castle folk, I need ye to fetch yer spare blankets and give ‘em to me men. Once ye’ve got ‘em, lads, ye share ‘em up between everyone.” “When the banquet hall is full, put families in the gallery, and in the smaller feasting hall, and then in any empty rooms ye can find. If there’s anyone without a place to sleep after that, I’ll make sure to find somewhere, even if it’s me own bedchamber.” “I wouldnae mind a night in his bedchamber,” he heard one of the young women whisper. An artillery of stifled giggles followed, but Jack carried on regardless.
“I need all the cooks to start makin’ whatever’s fastest. Ring the gong when it’s ready, and all ye villagers can line up to get yerselves somethin’ hot to eat.” He offered a warm smile to everyone. “It’s goin’ to be cramped for a while, but we’ve been through worse. And the day after tomorrow, we’ll venture out to see if we can get ye back in yer own homes.” A cheer rose up from the crowd, until their thunderous gratitude rattled in his ears. It was a sound he liked to hear, especially in times like this, but he could take no pleasure from it. He raised his hands, and they all fell silent again. “This is the least I can do, but I promise ye, I’ll bring these skirmishes and raids to an end. The Brodie Clan have torched their last village.
” He hesitated, realizing that what he was about to say might come back to bite him. “I vow to ye, here and now, that this war between the Brodies and the Dunmores will be over by the month’s end. I’ll do what me father couldn’ae. And with it, I’ll secure the peace ye all deserve.” Another cheer exploded into the chilly night air, but one look down at Kendrew told Jack that he might have made a promise he would not be able to keep. His friend was staring at him as though he had just said he would take the English throne. Jack leaned toward Kendrew. “Dinnae fret yerself, lad. I’ve an idea brewin’…”