Sins of a Highland Devil – Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Deep in the Scottish Highlands, three clans share the Glen of Many Legends. None of them do so gladly. Each clan believes they have sole claim to the fair and fertile vale. Their possessiveness is understandable because the glen truly is a place like no other. Bards throughout the land will confirm that the Glen of Many Legends is just that: an enchanted place older than time and steeped with more tales and myth than most men can recall. Kissed by sea and wind, the vale is long and narrow, its shores wild and serrated. Deeply wooded hills edge the glen’s heart while softly blowing mists cloak the lofty peaks that crowd together at its end. Oddly-shaped stones dot the lush grass, but the strangeness of the ancient rocks is countered by the heather and whin that bloom so profusely from every patch of black, peaty earth. No one would deny the glen’s beauty. Yet to some, the Glen of Many Legends is a place of ill fame to be avoided at all costs, especially by the dark of the moon. Strange things have been known to happen there and wise men tread cautiously when they must pass that way. But the MacDonalds, Camerons, and Mackintoshes who dwell there appreciate the glen’s virtues above frightening tales that may or may not have credence. Good Highlanders all, the clans know that any storyteller of skill is adept at embroidering his yarns. Highlanders are also a proud and stubborn people. And they’re known for their fierce attachment to the land.

These traits blaze hotly in the veins of the three clans of the Glen of Many Legends. Over time, their endless struggles to vanquish each other have drenched the glen with blood and sorrow. Peace in the glen is fragile and rare. Most times it doesn’t exist at all. Yet somehow the clans tolerate each other, however grudgingly. Now the precarious balance of order is about to be thrown into dispute by the death of a single woman. A MacDonald by birth and hereditary heiress to the MacDonalds of the Glen of Many Legends, she was a twice-widowed woman who chose to live out her days in the serenity and solitude of a nunnery. Sadly, she neglected to set down her last wishes in a will. This oversight would not be so dire if not for the disturbing truths that her first husband had been a Cameron and her second, a Mackintosh. On her passing, each clan lays claim to the dead woman.

Or, it can be more aptly said, they insist on being her rightful heirs. Soon land-greed and coveting will once again turn the glen’s sweet grass into a sea of running red and many good men will lose their lives. But even when the last clansman sinks to his knees, his sword sullied and the end near, the real battle is only just beginning. When it is done, the Glen of Many Legends will be forever changed. As will the hearts of those who dwell there. Chapter 1 Blackshore Castle The Glen of Many Legends – Autumn 1396 “A battle to the death?” Alasdair MacDonald’s deep voice rose to the smoke-blackened rafters of his great hall. Across that crowded space, his sister, Lady Catriona, stood frozen on the threshold. Alasdair’s harsh tone held her there, but she did lift a hand to the amber necklace at her throat. A clan heirloom believed to protect and aid MacDonalds, the precious stones warmed beneath her fingers. She fancied they also hummed, though it was difficult to tell with her brother’s roar shaking the walls.

Other kinsmen were also shouting, but it was Alastair’s fury that echoed in her ears. His ranting hit her like a physical blow. Her brother was a man whose clear blue eyes always held a spark of humor. And his laughter, so rich and catching, could brighten the darkest winter night, warming the hearts and spirits of everyone around him. Just now he paced in the middle of his hall, his handsome face twisted in rage. His shoulder-length auburn hair – always his pride – was untidy, looking wildly mussed as if he’d repeatedly thrust angry fingers through the finely-burnished mane. “Sakes! This is no gesture of goodwill.” His voice hardened, thrumming with barely restrained aggression. “Whole clans cut down. Good men murdered and for naught, as I and my folk see it!” Everywhere, MacDonalds grumbled and scowled.

Some shook fists in the air, others rattled swords. At least two spat on the rushstrewn floor and a few had such fire in their eyes it was almost a wonder that the air didn’t catch flame. Only one man stood unaffected. A stranger, Catriona saw him now because one of her cousins moved and torchlight caught and shone on the man’s heavily-bejeweled sword belt. She stared at the newcomer, not caring if her jaw slipped. She did step deeper into the hall’s arched entry, though her knees shook badly. She also forgot to shut the heavy oaken door she’d just opened wide. Cold damp wind blew past her, whipping her hair and gutting candles on a nearby table. A few wall torches hissed and spit, spewing ashes at her, but she hardly noticed. What was a bit of soot on her skirts when the quiet peace of Blackshore had turned to chaos? When Alasdair spoke of war? As chief to their clan, he wasn’t a man to use such words lightly.

And even if he were, the flush on his face and the fierce set of his jaw revealed that something dire had happened. The stranger – a Lowland noble by his finery – didn’t bode well either. Men of his ilk never came to Blackshore. The man’s haughty stance showed that he wasn’t pleased to be here now. And unlike her brother, he’d turned and was looking right at her. His gaze flicked over her and then he lifted one brow, almost imperceptibly. His opinion of her was palpable. The insolence in that slightly arced brow, a galling affront. Annoyance stopped the knocking of her knees and she could feel her blood heating, the hot color sweeping up her neck to scald her cheeks. The man looked amused.

Catriona was sure she’d seen his lips twitch. Bristling, she pulled off her mud-splattered cloak and tossed it on a trestle bench. She took some satisfaction in seeing the visitor’s eyes widen and then narrow critically when he saw that the lower half of her gown was as wet and soiled as her mantle. She had, after all, just run across the narrow stone causeway that connected her clan’s isle-girt castle with the loch shore. She’d raced to beat the tide. But even hurrying as she had, the swift-moving current was faster. She’d been forced to hitch up her skirts and splash through the swirling water, reaching the castle gates just before the causeway slipped beneath the rising sea loch. It was a mad dash that always exhilarated her. As she did every day, she’d burst into the hall, laughing and with her hair in a wild tangle from the wind. Now she might look a fright, but her elation was gone.

“What’s happened?” She hurried forward to clutch Alasdair’s arm, dread churning in her belly. “What’s this about clans being cut down? A battle-” “Not a true battle.” Alasdair shot a glance at the Lowlander. “A trial by combat-” “I see no difference.” She raised her chin, not wanting the stranger to see her worry. It was clear he’d brought this madness. That showed in the curl of his lip, a half-sneer that revealed his disdain for Highlanders. Alasdair noticed, too. She hadn’t missed the muscle jerking in his jaw. She tightened her grip on him.

“If men are to die, what matters the name you cast on their blood?” Behind her, someone closed the hall door. And somewhere in the smoke-hazed shadows, one of her kinsmen snarled a particularly vile curse. Catriona released her brother’s arm and reached again for her amber necklace. She twirled its length around her fingers, clutching the polished gems as if they might answer her. Her own special talisman, the ambers often comforted her. Now they didn’t. Worse, everyone was staring at her. The Lowlander eyed her as if she were the devil’s own spawn. He surely saw her fiery-red hair as the brand of a witch. Almost wishing she was – just so she could fire-blast him – she straightened her back and let her eyes blaze.

MacDonald pride beat through her, giving her strength and courage. She turned to Alasdair. “You needn’t tell me this has to do with the Camerons or the Mackintoshes. I can smell their taint in the air.” “My sister, Lady Catriona.” He addressed the Lowlander, not her. “She sometimes forgets herself.” “I but speak the truth. As for my appearance, I was enjoying the day’s brisk wind – a walk in our hills.” She flicked her skirts, righting them.

“Had I known we had guests” – she met the man’s hooded gaze – “I would have returned before the tide ran.” It was the only explanation he’d get from her. “Lady.” The stranger inclined his head, his dark eyes unblinking. “I greet you.” She refrained from asking who greeted her. His rich garments and jewels had already marked him as a fat-pursed, well-positioned noble. Not that such loftiness counted here, deep in the Highlands, where a man’s deeds and honor mattered so much more than glitter and gold. As if he read her mind and knew she was about to say so, her brother cleared his throat. “This, Catriona” – he indicated the Lowlander – “is Sir Walter Lindsay, the King’s man.

He’s brought tidings from court. A writ from the King, expressing his royal will.” Catriona bent a chilly look upon the man. The churning in her stomach became a tight, hard knot. Somehow she managed to dip in a semblance of a curtsy. “Good sir, welcome to Blackshore Castle.” She couldn’t bring herself to say my lord. “We’ve never before greeted such a noble guest to our glen.” Sir Walter’s brow lifted. He said nothing, but a slight flaring of his nostrils showed he knew she wished she weren’t forced to greet him now.

“It is because of the glen that he’s here.” Alasdair’s words made her heart go still. “The King wishes that-” “What does our glen have to do with the King?” She didn’t want to know. “The crown is greatly interested in this glen, my lady.” Sir Walter rested his hand lightly on the sword at his hip. “Your King would see peace in these hills. He is weary of the endless provocations between your clan and the other two who share this land. I am here to inform you that” – his gaze went to Alasdair – “he orders a trial of combat to ensure his will is met.” “Highland men keep their own peace,” someone called from near the hearth. Other voices rose in agreement and Catriona’s heart leapt.

Surely the men of the clan would send Sir Walter on his way, King’s courier or not. But Alasdair only strode to the high table and snatched up a rolled parchment, its red wax seals dangling and broken. When he turned back to the hall, his face was darker than ever, the writ clenched in a tight, white-knuckled grip. “There are many here, Sir Walter, who would say this” – he raised his hand, shaking the scroll – “has too much blood on it to be worth any peace. We of this glen have our own ways of handling trouble. “Even so, you’ll no’ see a single MacDonald refuse the King’s challenge.” Slapping the scroll back onto the table, he dusted his hands, demonstrably. “No’ under the terms set before us.” The kinsman standing closest to Catriona, a young lad built like a steer and with hair as flame-bright as her own, spat onto the floor rushes. “Threatening to banish us from the glen be no terms!” “They are the King’s terms.

” Sir Walter’s voice was impervious. “Be assured the Camerons and the Mackintoshes will receive the same warning.” Catriona heard the terrible words through a buzzing in her ears. Her head was beginning to pound, but she wouldn’t show weakness by pressing her hands to her temples. She did flash a glance at her brother. Like every other MacDonald in the hall, he looked ready to whip out his sword and run the King’s man through. If she weren’t a woman, she’d pull her own steel. As it was, she suppressed a shudder and chose her words with care. “I missed the reading of your tidings, Sir Walter.” His name tasted like ash on her tongue.

“Perhaps you will repeat them for me? “And” – she tilted her chin – “his reasons for placing us under his vaunted regard?” “With pleasure, my lady.” Sir Walter took her hand, lowering his head over her knuckles in an air kiss that jellied her knees in an icy, unpleasant way. “The King’s will is that a trial of combat – a fight to the death – should be held in the glen. King Robert proposes within a fortnight.” He looked into her eyes. “Thirty champions from each of the three clans of the glen must face each other. They shall fight stripped of all but their plaids and armed with swords, dirks, axes. A bow with three arrows per man shall be allowed, and a shield. But no quarter may be given. “Spectators will attend and specially dispatched royal guards will assure that no man leaves the field.

” His gaze narrowed on her, his mien hardening. “At the trial’s end, the clan with the most champions standing will be the one who wins your glen.” Catriona went hot and cold. “The Glen of Many Legends already is ours. Robert Bruce granted it to my great-great- grandfather in tribute to our support at Bannockburn. Our men should not have to spill blood for what they fought and won with such honor.” “She speaks the truth, by God!” Alasdair banged his fist on a table. “Would your King see the good King Robert’s charter undone?” “King Robert Stewart would see an end to the strife in his realm.” Sir Walter’s voice was clipped. “The unrest and lawlessness in these parts-” “Lawlessness?” Alasdair’s face darkened.

“What do you, a Lowlander, know of-” “Do you deny the murders of three Mackintoshes this past summer?” Sir Walter examined his fingernails, flicked a speck of lint from his sleeve. “Innocent men killed in cold blood not far from these very walls?” “They were stealing our cattle!” The red-headed youth next to Catriona stepped forward. “They chose to stand and face us when we caught them. It was a fair fight, no’ murder.” Sir Walter’s face remained cold. “Clan Mackintosh made a formal complaint to the court. Their chief informed us they were taking cattle to replace revenue tolls they lost because you menaced and threatened wayfarers trying to use the mountain pass above their stronghold.” “Aye, and what if we did?” Catriona began to shake with fury. “Every time our drovers attempt to use that pass to drive our beasts to the cattle trysts, the Mackintoshes block the way, barring passage to us. Even” – she drew a hot breath – “when we offered them double their toll.

” “They cost us revenue!” The shout came from the back of the hall. A clansman riled by such absurdity. “They’ve been blocking that pass to us for years. We tired of it.” “The Mackintoshes are troublemakers.” Catriona could scarce speak for anger. “Clan Cameron is worse.” A shiver ripped through her on the name, her heart pumping furiously as the insolent face of dread clan’s chief flashed across her mind. Worse than the devil, James Cameron ridiculed her every time their paths crossed. There were few men she reviled more.

Though just now she’d almost prefer his bold gaze and taunts to Sir Walter’s superior stare. Eyes narrowed, she fixed him with her own frostiest air. “Camerons cannot breathe without spewing insults.” She tossed back her hair, knew her face was coloring. “They are an ancient line of Satan-spawned-” “Ahhh….” Sir Walter spread his hands. “With so many transgressors afoot, you surely see why the King’s intervention is necessary?” “Necessary a pig’s eye!” someone yelled near the hearth fire. Catriona agreed. Though, with Sir Walter harping on the past summer’s squabble with the Mackintoshes, she could imagine that an overblown account of the incident may have reached the King’s royal ear. “Are the Mackintoshes behind this?” She could believe it.

The cloven-footed trumpetblasters wasted no opportunity to shout their claim to the glen. “Did they send another complaint to court? Asking for the crown’s interference?” Sir Walter’s mouth jerked, proving they had. “They did send a petition in recent days, yes.” Catriona flushed. “I knew it!” “They weren’t alone. Clan Cameron also sent an appeal, if you’d hear the whole of it.” Sir Walter’s tone was smooth. The glint in his eye showed that he enjoyed her distress. “Indeed” – he actually smiled – “it surprised us that we did not hear from your brother, considering.” “Considering what?” Catriona’s belly clenched again.

Sir Walter’s smile vanished. “Perhaps you should ask your brother.” Catriona turned to Alasdair, but when he fisted his hands and his mouth flattened into a hard, tight line, her heart dropped. Whatever it was that she didn’t yet know was grim. “Lady Edina has passed.” Alasdair spoke at last. “She did not leave a testament. Nor, according to the abbess at St. Bride’s” – he drew a deep breath – “did she ever make her wishes known to anyone.” Catriona swallowed.

Guilt swept her.

.

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