There was magic in the air, yet few could see it. To the mortal eye there was nothing but a brash, bullying Scottish storm that blew like the Devil’s breath from the gray swirling waters of the Sound of Mull. Lightning splintered the midnight sky, and thunder bellowed. Rain poured down from the heavens, and the sea crashed against the huge granite rocks of the coast, splattering white sea-foam up the sharp cliff on which Duart Castle stood. For five hundred of its six hundred years, the castle had been the stronghold of the clan MacLean and host to their cousins, the clan MacQuarrie. But the Battle of Culloden Moor had changed all that. On that dark, dank moor some sixty-seven years earlier, Scot stubbornness had caused many a clan to lose its holdings. The MacLeans had lost their stronghold to the Sassenach—Englishmen who cared not a whit for the braw, bold power of the place. The castle stood empty now, dark and abandoned. Or so it appeared. The skies bellowed and crackled, and the seas roared. To mere mortals it was only another storm, but to those who knew, to those of the ancient faith, it was more than just the heavens and the earth battling. The witches were awake. Now, there were witches, and there were witches. And then there were the MacQuarries.
‘Tis a sad tale, that of the MacQuarries, a tale that had begun hundreds of years before this night. An ancient forefather of the current MacQuarrie had been summoned to the fete of the Spring Equinox in what is now the south of England. There, on a wide plain, stood a massive stone temple where the witches and warlocks met to demonstrate their powers. On that special spring it had been decreed that the MacQuarrie warlock would have the cherished honor of making those most precious springtime flowers—the roses —bloom. Other witches and warlocks had already walked into the center of the temple and used their magic to bring life back to a winter-dead earth. ‘Twas a sight to see that day when, in a matter of moments, green grass broke through the sodden ground. Wallflower bushes, buttercups, and dandelions spread a frosting of bright yellow across the fresh green that had magically sprouted. Soon the barren branches of birch trees were dripping with silvery spring leaves and tall elegant alders burst anew. Oak, ash, and elm came back to life with little more than the casting of a spell, the flick of a hand, or the flashing snap of a witch’s magic. The scent of jasmine, primrose, marigold, and lavender filled the cool morning air, and suddenly it was spring.
Birds and insects swarmed through the air and perched in the trees, and the melody of the lark, the hum of the bees and call of doves brought music to the land that had for too many cold, dreary months been silent. Then, it was the MacQuarrie’s turn. The crowd parted as he made his way to the center of the stone temple. The room was silent, so silent one could have heard a blink, as each and every witch and warlock waited for that special moment. The MacQuarrie stood there for a long moment of quiet concentration. Slowly, he raised his hands toward the massive ceiling and with a snap of his fingers, let loose his magic. No roses bloomed that day. Instead an enormous explosion, the like of which no one had ever seen, blew the temple walls and roof into the sky. When the dust settled and the air cleared and the witches and warlocks picked themselves up off the ground, the temple was no more. Nothing stood except a few circles of stone arches.
Modern mortals look in awe at the ruins they call Stonehenge, but mention the name Stonehenge to the witches of the world and to this very day they shake their heads in dismay and mutter about the shame of the MacQuarries. And it came to pass that in the year of our Lord 1813 there were only two witches left in all of Scotland—a MacLean and, of all things, a MacQuarrie. So on this brash night as the storm battered the shore of the isle of Mull, as it rained on the crumbling ruins of a once-proud castle perched upon that jagged stone headland, as the mortals on that tiny island cowered by their fires and listened to the heavens wail, the MacLean and the MacQuarrie made magic. Joyous Fiona MacQuarrie bent down to pick up the scattering of books on the tower room floor. Ten golden bracelets jangled like sleigh bells down her wrists and echoed in the tense silence of the room. She was thankful for the noise; it gave her a blessed moment’s respite from the impatient, penetrating glare of her aunt, the MacLean. With her face turned away from her aunt, Joy grabbed another book, tucking it under her arm as she muttered, “‘Twas only one wee tad of a word.” She picked up another book, to the accompaniment of those same tinkling bracelets, but as they settled on her wrists she could hear a new sound—a distinct, agitated tapping. Her aunt’s foot. Joy peeked under her outstretched arm and winced.
Her aunt’s arms were crossed, and she shook her golden head in disgust. But worst of all, Joy could see the MacLean’s lips move: her aunt was counting again. Joy’s heart sank; she’d failed again. With a defeated sigh she quietly returned the books to their ancient oak shelf and plopped onto a wobbly wooden stool after pulling it closer to the trestle table that stood in the center of the tower room. She rested a small chin in her hand and waited for her aunt to reach a hundred—at least she hoped it would be only a hundred. A slick cat with fur as white as fresh Highland snow leapt onto the table and wound itself around and through the three time-tarnished brass candlesticks whose tapers bathed the battered oak table in flickering golden light. As the cat meandered along the table, its tail cast strange shadows across the nicked tabletop. Entranced by the patterns, Joy tried to make imaginary letters out of those cat’s-tail figures, her mind wandering off on one of its frequent journeys of fancy. That was her problem. She was a witch with a wandering mind.
The cat, Gabriel, was her aunt’s familiar—an embodied spirit in animal form whose duty was to serve, attend, and in some cases, guard a witch. She glanced at her own familiar, Beelzebub, an ermine weasel whose coat was currently winter white except for wee spots of black on his tail and paws. The snowy fur covered a massive potbelly that made him look more like a plump rabbit than a sleek, almost feline weasel. He was at that moment, as at most moments, sound asleep. She sighed. Beezle was the only animal who was willing to be her familiar. Cats like Gabriel were proud, arrogant animals; they absolutely refused to be associated with a witch who couldn’t control her magic. Owls were too wise to ally themselves with someone as inept as Joy. And toads, well, they took one look at her, croaked, and hopped away. Plump, old Beezle wheezed in his sleep.
Joy watched his black-tipped paws twitch and reminded herself that at least she had a familiar, even if he was only a weasel. As if sensing her thoughts, he cracked open one lazy, brown eye and peered at her as if calmly waiting for the next disaster. She reached out to scratch his plush belly and promptly knocked over a pot of cold rose hip tea. Gabriel hissed and sprang out of the path of the spilled tea. Beezle didn’t move that fast. Beezle seldom moved at all. The tea pooled like the tide around him. He blinked twice, looked at the tea seeping onto his white fur, and gave her a look not unlike the MacLean’s before he shook himself, sending a sprinkling of tea in every direction. He waddled over to a dry spot and plopped back down with a soft thud, then rolled over, paws in the air, plump white and pink belly up, and stared at the ceiling. Joy wondered if animals could count.
Beezle opened his mouth and let out a loud wheeze, then a snore. Count in their sleep, she amended, drumming her fingers on the table. “Whatever am I to do with you?” the MacLean finally spoke, having taken enough time to count to a hundred twice. Her aunt’s stance was stern, but her voice held the patience that arose from what was almost a mother’s love. That love made the situation even worse for Joy. She truly wanted to hone her magic skills for her patient aunt, as well as for her own pride’s sake, and she was miserable because she couldn’t get it right. She absently drew one finger through the dust on the table, then looked at her aunt and mentor. “Can one word truly make such a difference?” “Every single word is of the utmost importance. An incantation must be exact. Part of the power comes from the voice.
” The MacLean took a deep breath and clasped her hands behind her. “The rest takes practice. Concentration!” She paced around the circular room, her strong voice echoing off the stone walls like bagpipes in the Highlands. With the suddenness of a wink, she stopped and looked down at Joy. “Now pay attention. Watch me.” Standing to Joy’s left, she raised her elegant hands high in the air, allowing the fine gold threads in her embroidered silk robe to catch the candlelight and glimmer like a twinkling of fairy dust. Joy caught her breath. Standing as she was, tall and golden with the midnight sky as a backdrop through the tower window, her aunt looked like a goddess. Her long straight hair, which hung in a gleaming satin drape past her hips to the backs of her knees, was the color of hammered gold.
Her skin was as flawless as pure cream and appeared ageless in the muted glow of the candlelight. The MacLean’s robe was white—not the stark white of cotton or the ivory white of lamb’s wool but the same shimmering white that the stars shone, that lightning sparked, that diamonds glittered and the sun glowed. A breath of cold Scottish wind whistled through the tower room, making the candle flames flicker. The sharp smell of hot tallow mingled with the scent of midnight rain and the brine of the roiling seas that rode the whisper of wind through the room. Shadows danced a jagged jig up the granite walls, and the sound of waves crashing against the sharp coastal rocks below echoed upward, blending with the mournful call of gulls that roosted in the tower eaves. Then, with the suddenness of a lightning flash, all was still . silent. The MacLean’s deep voice called out, “Come!” Magic quaked through the air—a live, animated thing, powerful, controlled, swarming toward the wall where heavy old leather-bound books stood on an oaken shelf. A huge brown book, cracked and tattered, slowly, inch by smooth inch, slid off the shelf, turned in midair, then floated to the MacLean. It hovered near her, waiting, until she slowly lowered one arm.
The book followed her movement, lighting on the table as if it were a feather instead of a three-thousand-page volume. Joy plopped her chin into her hand and sighed. “You make it look so easy.” “‘Tis easy. One must simply concentrate.” Her aunt replaced the book on its shelf and turned to Joy. “Now you try it.” With pure Scots stubbornness in her dark green eyes, Joy took a deep breath, closed those eyes, and with all the drama a twenty-one-year-old witch could muster, she flung her hands up into the air. Her bracelets flew across the tower room like soaring gulls. At the first clatter of metal hitting stone, she winced, then eased open one green eye.
“Forget the bracelets! Concentrate . concentrate.” She tried to concentrate, but nothing happened. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. “Picture the book moving, Joyous. Use your mind’s eye.” She remembered the way her aunt had made the magic only minutes before. She threw her shoulders back and raised her determined chin, sending a thick cascade of wild and wavy mink-brown hair tumbling down to sway near the backs of her thighs. She opened her eyes and reached up higher. Taking one deep, cleansing breath for luck, she commanded, “Come!” The book quivered, moved about two inches, then stopped.
“Concentrate!” “Come!” Joy spread her fingers wide, bit her lip, and slowly pulled her hands back toward her, mentally picturing the book drifting toward her, then hovering in the air. The book slid forward on the shelf, just reaching the edge. “Come!” Joy shouted in a voice as deep as Fingal’s Cave. She opened her eyes, determined to move that book, then snapped her fingers for good measure. Luckily, she saw it coming and ducked. The book flew past her as if carried on a whirlwind; then the next book and the next book, then another and another, sucked from the shelf with the pulling strength of the sea tide. With a horrendous crack, the bookshelf ripped from the stone walls. It flew around the room, spinning and arcing, turning and turning, faster and faster. A dented tin pail spun off to Joy’s left, then clanged against the floor. A broom sped to the right; three stools twirled like dancers, then tumbled end over end to bang against a pitcher, shattering it into a thousand pieces.
Furniture crashed against the walls, splintering, cracking. Candles levitated up . up . up . The wind howled through the room, huffing and puffing and whirling. Instinctively Joy wrapped her arms around her head and hunched over. The teapot just missed her. From somewhere she heard a cat shriek, the patter of paws running. A coal bucket sent lumps of black coal flying through the room like rocks at a stoning. Then she heard a regal-sounding grunt—the MacLean.
“Oh, rats!” Joy clamped her hand over her mouth as a hundred gray rats scurried into the tower room, slithering down the walls, leaping from broken furniture, running amok. Slowly the wind died down, growing softer until it was but a whisper, and after a long moment the air was still. The only sound in the room was that of the rats’ scurrying feet. Joy heard a choked cough behind her. She straightened up and turned around. Waving away the coal dust, a black-faced MacLean extricated herself from beneath what had once been a two-hundred-year-old throne chair. She cast a malevolent look at the rats running willy-nilly through the disaster-struck room and snapped her elegant black-smudged fingers, sending up a small cloud of coal dust. The rats disappeared. The once-white Gabriel, outnumbered by the rats, let loose another screech and scurried in a black ball across the room and under the MacLean’s filthy gown where the hemline quivered for a long moment and a little dusting of soot sprinkled onto the woodplank floor. The only sound in the room was Beezle’s wheezing.
Sprawled on his back, he lay on the table, paws up, belly slowly rising with each wheeze. He’d slept through the whole thing. One tense but despairing stare from her aunt and Joy felt the weight of the world. “I’m sorry,” She whispered, turning her guilty green eyes toward her aunt. “I cannot let you loose on the world, Joyous. I cannot.” The MacLean dusted off her hands and surveyed the destruction. “I cannot in good conscience let you live in England all alone for two years.” Her aunt looked thoughtful for a brief moment while she tapped a coal-blackened finger against her lips. “Of course, letting you live there might be just what the English deserve after Culloden Moor .
” She glanced around the cluttered room with a scowl of disgust, then shook her head. “No, no. The English are already burdened by a lunatic king and a regent who would rather play than rule.” “But—” “No.” The MacLean raised her hand to silence Joy. “I know you mean well, but all the good intentions in the world cannot control . this.” She waved a hand at the mess in the room, shook her head, and went on, “You need protection, my dear. Someone to watch over you.” With that she raised her sooty hands in the air, snapped her fingers, and zap! the room was back in perfect order— chairs upright and in position, stools and table and teapot all in their proper places; the pitcher in one piece, the broom and pail standing against the north wall, and all of the books lined up on the shelves like stiff English soldiers.
The MacLean, suddenly spotless, was once again a vision of pure white and glimmering gold perfection. Joy knew what her aunt was really saying: that Joyous Fiona MacQuarrie needed someone around to clean up after her, someone to undo the havoc her cockeyed magic wreaked. But Joy had lived with her aunt for fifteen years, and now she wanted a chance to live alone, to answer to no one but herself. When she was alone, maybe she could learn to control her powers. Maybe she wouldn’t feel so tense and nervous because there’d be no one to let down but herself. She was deeply hurt by her uncanny ability to always disappoint the people she most wanted to please. She stood there, defeated, guilty, unhappy, feeling despair spread through her. She hurt; she had failed, and now none of her hopes would be fulfilled. With her aunt leaving for a council position in North America, Joy was to be alone at last, a prospect she had anticipated eagerly. Duart Castle had been leased to a group of Glasgow doctors who planned to use it to house the battered and mind-shattered soldiers returning from war with Napoleon’s France.
Joy was to go to her maternal grandmother’s cottage in Surrey and live in relative obscurity for two years. She was sure she could learn her skills by then. She was positive. She just needed to convince the MacLean. Besides, her aunt would be gone and never know if she made a mistake or two. And there was one other argument in her favor “If protection is what I need, how about a familiar?” A loud feline scream cut through the air. Gabriel whipped out from under the MacLean’s hem and scurried underneath a chest. He cowered in the dark, a pair of darting, wary blue eyes the only clue to his hiding place. “My familiar,” she corrected, just as Beezle twitched and snorted in his sleep. “Isn’t a familiar supposed to protect a witch?” “Joyous, the only thing that sluggish weasel will protect is his bedtime.
You just cannot seem to concentrate—” “Wait!” Joy stood, suddenly hopeful. “I have an idea!” She rushed over to a small battered Larkin desk, opened it, and rummaged through until she found what she sought. “Here!” She spun around holding a piece of paper, a pen with a small black box of pen points, and a squat jar of India ink. “I’ll write the incantation down first. Then I can see it, on the paper in black and white. You’ll see, I know I’ll be able to concentrate then, I know it. Please . just give me one more chance.” Her aunt watched her for a long, decisive moment “Please,” Joy whispered, lowering her eyes and holding her breath while her mind chanted a litany: Give me one last chance, please . please .
please . The MacLean raised her chin. “One more time.” A smile bright enough to outshine the candle flame filled Joy’s pale face. Her green eyes flashed with eagerness, and she hastened to the table, sat down on a stool, and dipped the pen tip into the ink. Smiling, she looked up. Joyous Fiona MacQuarrie was ready. But England wasn’t.