“I DİNNA LİKE it either, ye ken? I know I said it before, but it bears sayin’ again. When Mama says go, I must go. And might be, she’s even right this time. Usually is. Besides, I didna see ye stepping forward to tell her nay.” Magnus de Gray cut a dark look over at the entirely too talkative fifteen-year-old. Ever since leaving Tor Ruadh, he had managed civil responses to the youngling’s endless chatter. He had been curt with the boy but civil. But Hell’s fire and all its demons, the days had been long. This leg of the journey should have been quiet. Time to reflect on what lay ahead. As it was, the only silence to be had was when the lad slept. It ended today. Magnus had tolerated all he could stand. “Evander! Shut it, aye?” Evander Cameron, the eldest of Ian Cameron’s adopted sons, shrugged away the scolding, then urged his horse into the lead.
He obviously didn’t care about the seriousness of this trip, nor the obvious insult his mother, Gretna, had dealt to them both before they left the keep. The woman had shamed them in front of half the clan, swearing the two of them needed a lesson in the proper treatment of females and that perhaps working together to find Magnus’s newly discovered illegitimate son might teach them how actions always had consequences. How dare she say such a thing. In front of the clan, too. And damn if Alexander, the chieftain, hadn’t agreed! His guilt about the situation already weighed heavier than his enormous warhorse. Remorse for leaving the Lady Bree Maxwell alone and pregnant pricked his conscience just as great as if he had knowingly deserted the woman, which he hadn’t. Or at least, he hadn’t meant to leave her in such a state. She hadn’t told him she carried his child. And how had she gotten with the babe so easily? ’Twas but a single encounter. He had known at the time it was a foolhardy move, but the lovely lass had made it impossible to refuse.
Her father’s edict for her to marry a cruel man forced her to seek release from the betrothal in the most defiant way she knew. If she couldn’t marry for love, she would at least lose her virginity to friendship. Lady Bree had hoped her deflowered state would free her from the despicable union, even if it meant imprisonment in a nunnery. She had been so desperate—and oh, so enticing. Especially after she plied him with her father’s best whisky, and when he told her he didn’t love her, she had laughed! Said it didn’t matter. And now, even without that fickle emotion, look where his actions had landed him. “Ye ken this wouldha been much easier if they had put where they were in that letter,” Evander called back over his shoulder. “The thing was faded, torn, and looked to have taken a good soaking. Some of the script washed away.” Magnus still couldn’t believe the missive had survived over five years before it found him.
“What was their clan’s name again?” Evander asked. “Should we not have seen their keep by now? There’s a village up ahead. See the white of the buildings against the blue of the sea? Is that not Inbhir Theòrsa? Ye said Inbhir Theòrsa was the last settlement before we reached the water’s edge. Ye said if we made it there afore we found the keep, we had somehow missed the place and gone too far.” “I am well aware of what I said,” Magnus snapped. As much as he hated to admit it, the boy was right. They should’ve reached the keep by now. How had they not? Oblivious to his elder’s sharp tone, Evander tilted his head and squinted up at the brilliance of the sunny sky. “Hear those birds a keenin’? Is that what terns sound like?” “Aye. Those are terns.
” Magnus frowned as he turned his mount and scanned the landscape behind them. An eerie uneasiness stirred deep in his bones. “Their clan name is Nithdane,” he added, more to keep the boy from repeating his original question and hopefully, delay him in coming up with any new ones. He needed silence to study the area. Something was sorely amiss. “But I thought ye said her name was Lady Bree Maxwell?” Dammit, would the boy never stop his chatter? “Aye, I said that because it was her name. Her fool of a father refused to share his surname with any of his daughters. Said only a son deserved the right to carry the clan name. The name Maxwell belonged to her mother.” With a slow, steady pull on the reins, he turned his mount further, sweeping the landscape for clues.
“Ye said the keep was well before the village, aye? Said a good distance separated them, but they were still within view of each other?” Ignoring Evander, Magnus urged his horse off the dirt path and backtracked. In the distance loomed an overgrown mound of charred stones he didn’t remember. He headed for it at a dead gallop. An ominous sense of doom churned in the pit of his stomach. Once he reached the ruin, he pulled up short. What once had been tall, imposing walls were now crumbling piles of rubble bleached white as old bones. A dark greening of moss stained the debris closest to the ground. Bits of charred wood and twisted remnants of rusting metal peeped out from clumps of sedge and thickets of nettle. Someone had reduced Nithdane Keep to nothing more than a memory. “Is this…or was this it?” Evander asked, reining in beside him.
The lad dismounted and poked around the tumbled-down shell of what had once been a decent-sized keep. Not a massive fortress, but large enough to make a small clan like Nithdane proud. When the lad came upon a rotting post with a skull at its base, he backed away, crossing himself with every step. “What do ye reckon happened here?” “Back to yer horse.” Magnus refused to dismount and disturb Nithdane’s ghosts. He turned his beast toward the settlement, eyeing the peaceful stretch of white buildings rimming the bay and the fishing boats bobbing alongside the docks. “Hie wi’ ye now,” he said. “I’m sure someone from the village can tell us what happened.” He snorted out a bitter huff as he waited for Evander. The place reeked with the stench of betrayal.
More likely than not, it wouldn’t be difficult to discover what Nithdane’s ruins refused to share. People loved retelling tales of carnage, suffering, and death. That was but one of the many reasons Magnus preferred solitude with no one other than his falcon, Merlin, for company. Regrettably, he had left the bird back at Tor Ruadh in the care of Evander’s brothers since he had no idea what this trip might entail. For the first time since leaving the keep, the boy did as he was asked without comment. They rode along in blessed silence. For that, Magnus was grateful. At least for a while. After tolerating Evander’s constant chatter for days, the heavy blanket of quiet between them now was not only suffocating but filled Magnus with guilt for snarling at the lad. This hellish trip wasn’t the youngling’s fault.
He clenched his teeth so hard it was a wonder they didn’t shatter. By the gods, he would do better by this inquisitive young pup. The last thing he needed in this life was something more to regret. When they rode into Inbhir Theòrsa, the first thing Magnus noticed was that the folk of the small fishing hamlet seemed cautious—almost fearful. He didn’t remember them behaving like that the last time he had been there. The men in front of the buildings turned away, avoiding his gaze. Most either sought shelter inside or hurried down toward the docks. Fisherwomen sewing nets and weaving baskets dropped their work, crossed themselves, then rushed into their dwellings and shuttered the doors and windows. “What did ye do the last time ye were here?” Evander spoke in a hushed tone. “These folk act like ye’re death’s angel come to steal their souls.
” He bobbed his head from side to side when Magnus didn’t answer. “’Course, with that white hair of yers. And them black clothes. Black horse, too. I canna say as I blame them.” Squinting one eye shut, he studied Magnus, then nodded. “Aye, I can see it. All ye need is horns, black wings, and a pointy tail.” “Ye are not helping, boy.” “Sorry.
” “The public house used to be down that way and to the right. We’ll try there.” Magnus urged his horse to a faster clip. Not only did the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight on end, but the scar between his shoulder blades tingled. A sure sign they needed to leave this place as quickly as they found the information they sought. This village possessed darkness he didn’t like. “Stay with the horses,” Magnus said. The shutters for the windows on either side of the pub’s bright red door banged shut. That hadn’t happened the last time he was here unless a storm was about to hit. A louder thud hit the inside of the door, the sound of the bar being dropped across the threshold.
“Pub’s closed!” shouted a voice from inside. “In the middle of the day?” Evander taunted. “Are ye that afeared of the mighty Magnus de Gray?” Magnus shot the boy a threatening look that surprisingly shut the lad’s mouth. He made a note to remember that for future reference. Stepping closer to the door, he caught sight of a watery eye peering at him through a knothole. “Tell me what I seek, and the boy and I will leave.” “I got nothing to say to the likes of ye. Be gone now. I done spread salt across the threshold, and me wife’s got a vial of holy water what came all the way from Inverness.” The bloodshot eye blinked.
“What happened at Nithdane Keep?” Magnus widened his stance and fixed the eye with his grimmest stare. “What became of Lady Bree Maxwell’s child?” The window to his left creaked, and the barrel of a gun slid through the crack between the shutters. “Get out of here, ye devil. Ye’ve stirred all the evil here ye’re gonna stir. We willna bear no more from ye! Be gone, or we’ll see if ye bleed like the rest of us.” “Dinna shoot him,” screeched a higher-pitched voice, a woman from somewhere inside. “He’ll curse ye like he did Nithdane and the Maxwell women.” It was times like this that Magnus wished his mother had never instilled within him the belief that whatsoever you send out returns to you in thrice. Her warning had stayed his hand many a time—but not this one. “Tell me what happened to Nithdane Keep and Lady Bree’s child, or I’ll curse the lot of ye to a slow death from the pox!” He added a thunderous stream of Latin to the threat, wondering if anyone within earshot understood the wicked-sounding words.
His Latin was a mite rusty. If he remembered rightly, he had just threatened to awaken a dragon and feed their ships to it, but he wasn’t sure. Wouldn’t it be grand if he really could? Apparently, Evander’s education included Latin. His snicker changed to a coughing fit when Magnus jerked around and shot him a dark glare. If that boy ruined this ruse, he’d thrash his talkative arse for him. To ensure the weapon’s bearer heeded the woman’s warning and didn’t shoot, Magnus scooped up a clump of dirt and jammed it in the end of the barrel. “Now that yer weapon’s fouled, ye best speak or die. Tell me of the keep and Lady Bree.” The gun slid out of view, but the crack between the shutters remained, held open by a thick, stubby finger. “Old Red Caunich razed the keep when his betrothed—yer precious Lady Bree cuckolded him.
” Someone spit, making Magnus tighten his jaw. How dare that bastard spit after saying Lady Bree’s name. “His lairdship, the Caunich,” the voice continued, “Didna take kindly to such disrespect. Killed all in the keep. Burned them alive. Leastways, the ones he didna hang from the cliffs or impale on the pikes.” The voice wheezed in a deep breath, then coughed. “He hunted down many in the clan, too. Swore he wouldna leave a Nithdane alive to speak of this shame. ’Twas only by God’s good grace that he spared this here village.
Right as he was coming to attack us, a powerful ague came upon him. Left his sword arm paralyzed and turned him mute. The Caunich took it as a sign he had done enough to avenge the insult, so he returned to his keep and left us in peace.” Magnus scrubbed the stubble of his jaw, mulling over the man’s words. The letter that had finally caught up with him at Sutherland MacCoinnich’s keep had said the Lady Bree had died in childbirth. Said he had a son. When had Red Caunich attacked? “When?” “When?” “Aye. When did all this happen?” Magnus shoved the shutters aside and reached through the open window, grabbing hold of the wide-eyed man by the throat. “When did Red Caunich destroy the Nithdanes?” Clawing at Magnus’s arm, the pub keeper made a futile attempt to wriggle free. “’Twas when his lairdship arrived to claim his bride and found they banished her for her whoring.
Her and her sister both. The Nithdane thought the banishment might appease the raging laird, but it didna do so. Old Red Caunich said it was his right to punish the Lady Bree—not her father’s. Said he wouldha cut the bairn from her belly and left’m both on the cliffs to feed the terns.” Magnus released the man with a shove. They had banished Lady Bree. And her sister, too. He turned and glanced back toward where Nithdane Keep had once stood. The heartless banishment had saved their lives. “Where did they go? Lady Bree and her sister?” For the life of him, he couldn’t remember the sister at all.
Before the pub keeper could close the shutters, Magnus slammed them both open wide and held them. “Tell me where they went or die.” “I dinna ken,” the man said as he stumbled backward. He pointed a shaking finger at the floor. “That there’s the salt. Ye canna cross it, ye wicked son of Satan.” Then he jabbed a finger at Magnus. “The whore’s maid ran from the keep afore old Red came. She told us ye were the one that put that bastard in her mistress’s belly afore ye returned to yer throne beside the Earl o’ Hell. Said we shouldha held her ’neath the waters ’til Satan’s spawn left her soul in peace.
But it was too late. The whore and her sister had done escaped.” Magnus launched himself through the window, shattering the glass as he slammed the sashes aside. He dropped to the floor, scooped up a handful of salt, then ground it into the sniveling man’s face. “I’ve a revelation for ye, ye spineless son of a whore. I’m the most powerful demon of them all. Neither salt nor holy water stops me.” He shoved the man back, bouncing his head against the wall. “What direction did Lady Bree and her sister take?” Tightening his hold on the fool’s throat, he lifted him until his feet dangled above the floor. “And if ye value yer life, ye’ll speak of her with respect, ye ken?” “I swear I dinna ken where she went,” the man rasped, his round face reddening.
“Follow the coast!” shouted a heavy woman from behind the bar. “East, I’d say. Along the coast.” She shoved her disheveled mop of graying hair out of her eyes. “If’n it was me that got run off from here, I’d stay to the coast for food. Gull’s eggs. Fish washed up and such. I’d keep movin’ ’til I found folk who didna know ’bout me or ’bout what had happened. I’d go east ’cause towns are there that might have a kind soul who might help a woman breedin’. ’Specially if she lied and told them she was widowed.
I’d bet the finest ale we got that’s what her planned to do when she left here. East along the coast for certain, ye ken?” Her panicked gaze kept flitting to the chubby little man Magnus held aloft. “I swear it.” She crossed herself, then clasped her hands and shook them. “Please dinna kill or curse us. We did her no harm. Surely, ye know we couldna give her shelter. If the Nithdane had found out, he wouldha run us out, too. We wouldha lost everything. Came close to losing it when Laird Red Caunich came through here.
” She crossed herself again. “Only God Almighty saved us.” Magnus released the pub keeper and stepped back as the man hit the floor. What the woman said made sense, and Lady Bree would have been canny enough to do just that. In fact, she had often told him of combing the beaches and cliff sides in search of nature’s treasures , as she had called them. The memory made his heart hurt. Such a sweet lass. What had she endured because he had taken another mercenary campaign rather than wintered at Nithdane? The thought weighed heavy on him as he strode to the door, tossed aside the ridiculous bar, and exited. He despised those who would stand idly by and watch while an innocent woman was stripped of her kith and kin’s protection. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Evander skittering back to their mounts.
The nosy lad had been eavesdropping at the window. “I thought I told ye to tend the horses?” Magnus said, gruff with the lad, but his heart wasn’t in it. He settled into the saddle, struggling with the responsibility of all he had discovered. How had he managed to hurt so many with one foolish choice? “I could see them from where I stood,” Evander defended. “I canna believe ye didna kill that arse worm.” “I only kill when I must.” He nudged his beast with his knee and headed east. “So, we ride the coast ’til we come across someone who knew her?” Evander edged his pale gray horse up beside Magnus’s black beast. “Reckon they traveled on foot?” “I’m sure they did.” The thought rankled him, stirring the rage simmering in his gut.
He wondered if they had escaped with anything more than the clothes on their backs—if that. Bree’s father had been an arrogant bastard, acting as though he ruled over the largest clan in all of Scotland rather than a wee cluster of folks he claimed were descended from Somerled himself. Magnus had no doubt the man had made the banishing of his daughters into quite the spectacle. The fool had always lamented how his wife had failed the clan by not giving him sons. Evander nudged his horse to a faster pace, keeping it abreast of Magnus’s. “Would a chief really treat his daughter so harshly?” The worry in the boy’s tone warned Magnus this conversation had more to do with than just Clan Nithdane. “No good chief would treat his daughter so harshly. Most would just send them away. To a nunnery most likely.” “What about a lass whose father isna so high in the clan?” Evander waved away the words as though they were midges.
“Say…like the smithy’s daughter even.” “Did ye bed Ellen? Is that why yer mother was fit to be tied and sent ye on this trip?” Gretna’s harsh lecture made sense now. While Evander might have the wants and needs of a man, he didn’t have the ways or the means to take care of any consequences should they arise. “Is the lass with child?” “Nay!” Evander stared at him as though he had just said they would eat their horses for dinner. “At least…I dinna think she is.” He squirmed in the saddle. “I didna even get my willy all the way in her the first time we did it. When she pulled on it whilst I sucked on her teats, I couldna keep from spilling my seed.” His horrified look plainly said how he felt about that. “It felt so good, I thought I had died.
” After a slow shake of his head, he added, “And the second time we done it, her da walked in on us. I thought I was dead then, for sure. That man’s big as an ox.” Magnus bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. “I went to chapel twice to thank God above that all the man did was drag my arse back to Mama.” The boy made a face. “’Course, then I thought I was dead, too. She might not be big as the smithy, but God help ye if ye give her a case of the red arse.” He gave Magnus an earnest look. “Ye think I’m gonna be a da? Will the chieftain make me wed Ellen? We only did it the two times, and the first shouldna even count.
” “Do ye love Ellen?” Magnus decided to attack this delicate issue from that angle. “Nay—leastways not enough to wed her.” Evander frowned. “Did ye love yer Lady Bree?” “That was a different situation.” “Different how?” The lad’s eyes narrowed as though he smelled a lie. “I was fond of her,” Magnus lamely replied, wondering how the hell their talk had taken this turn. “When she asked for my help, I couldna refuse.” “Yer help with what?” “The ridding of her maidenhead.” “Her what?” Evander stared at him in disbelief.