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Authors: Melanie Karsak

highland raven

Highland Raven

The Celtic Blood Series, Book I

Melanie Karsak

 

MelanieKarsak.com

 

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Clockpunk Press 2015, 2014

Copyright © 2015 as
Highland Raven

Copyright © 2014 as
Lady Macbeth: Daughter of Ravens

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. References to historical people, organizations, events, places, and establishments are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

Published by Clockpunk Press

PO Box 560367

Rockledge, FL 32956-0367

Clockpunk Press

Editing by Cat Carlson Amick

Proofreading by
Becky Stephens Editing

Proofreading by
Rare Bird Editing

Cover art by
Damonza

Table of Contents

Highland Raven

Table of Contents

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Thank You

Author’s Note

Acknowledgements

Dedication

 

for Mother

Prologue

 

I’ve been defamed. The Bard
of Avon dubbed me a villainess, an angry, evil murderess. I’m forever painted as an ambitious, blood-hungry queen. They’d have you take me for a mad woman. Slander. Small men tell lies. Poets tell half-truths. Maybe I’m a bit mad, but who wouldn’t be after all I have seen? Regardless, I don’t want you to believe such deceits. I don’t want my name to go down in the annals of times with such epitaphs. My name. What is my name? Have you ever heard it? Did your professor of English ever utter it? My name is quite the mystery. My father gave me one, my aunt favored me with another, and the Bard, well, he called me by my husband’s name: Lady Macbeth. But I am more than these simple monikers.

I was born in the year 1010 of an Irish princess and an heir to the throne of Scotland. My mother was the reward from a raid into Ireland and a false treaty thereafter. She’s forgotten now, but I want you to know her name. I owe her that. They called her Emer after the Irish legend of Cú Chulainn. She was tall, thin, and had blonde hair that stretched to the floor. My mother died a short nine months after marrying my father, whose name was Boite. My beginning brought her end. They believe she lived sixteen years. Not a long life. And me, I came into the world killing.

My ill-fated birth came at the end of another of my father’s campaigns. As the corpses were paraded past the castle to the burial mound, I emerged squalling from the womb. I was handed to my father who was covered in more blood than I; the sticky red liquid on his chainmail stained the white of my swaddles.

“See here, child,” my father whispered, lifting me to the open window casement. “These men are of your blood. I set the mark of the old gods upon you,” he said, tracing ancient runes upon my brow, my natal blood mixing with the blood of the dead men. “Avenge your kinsman. I call upon the Morrigu, the ancient and dead Goddess of these lands, and ask her to claim you. Let her rise up and take you. Let her whisper battle cries for lullabies. Avenge with the magic of the old gods. Rise up, child, and carry our banner forth. Remember that you are a child of Kenneth MacAlpin’s line and bring vengeance.”

Dark clouds moved across the sky, occluding the full moon. A raven’s shrill pierced the silence. The old gods had listened.

“Hear now, sweet babe, Gruoch, hear how the raven calls.”

Thus the first name fell upon me, Gruoch, an awful sounding name uttered from an angry and vengeful man. Behind my father, the midwives crossed themselves. Though he attended the mass of the White Christ, those close to my father knew his heart belonged to the old ones. And me, the farthest from him, felt his beliefs most of all. Perhaps, in this, he did me a single justice.

Chapter 1

 

“Toil and trouble,” my aunt
Madelaine grumbled playfully as she shook me awake. “Raising you has been nothing but toil and trouble. Wake up, Little Corbie.”

Little Corbie. All my life she had called me Little Corbie, her little raven, on account of my looks: raven-black hair and pale skin. My blueish, almost lavender-colored eyes, added to my midnight pallor. I yawned tiredly and rolled over, pulling my covers over my head. I was too sleepy to get into mischief, but Madelaine’s voice told me she was ripe with it.

“Lazy,” she scolded, shaking my shoulder. “Get up. We’re waiting for you.”

Through my sleep-clouded eyes, I peered out from my blankets past the waterfall of Madelaine’s curly red hair to see the silhouette of Tavis, my aunt’s brawny champion, in the doorway. Madelaine’s husband, Alister, was still away, and she wasn’t going to let even a moment of her temporary freedom pass unenjoyed.

“The night is still fighting the morning and so am I,” I complained sleepily, but my hazy head started to clear, and the first glimmer of nervous excitement filled my stomach. Madelaine’s waywardness almost always resulted in fun.

“The raven caws,” Tavis said from the door. “I’ll meet my ladies in the stable.” The door clapped shut behind him, and I heard the sound of his footsteps recede down the stone castle hallway. I looked out the window. The night’s sky was fading into hazy gray as the first hint of rosy pink illuminated the skyline.

Madelaine crossed the room quickly, her fast movement becoming a blur of swirling skirts as she gathered up my riding clothes and dumped them on the end of my bed. In the heap I saw my leather riding breeches, an emerald-colored tunic, and some pale green undergarments.

With a heavy sigh, I got out of bed. “And where are we going?” I asked as I pulled on my clothes.

“Out, out! To the forest. Amongst the trees. Somewhere where we can run wild,” Madelaine said with a laugh as she tossed me my riding cloak. “I can smell the sap running, can’t you? I swear I could smell daffodils on the wind this morning,” Madelaine said in a sing-song.

I couldn’t help but smile. Madelaine was my father Boite’s half-sister, and I adored her. “Can’t the forest come to us?” I asked with a laugh.

“Don’t worry. The morning air will perk you up,” she said with a grin. Once I was dressed, she grabbed my hand, and we headed downstairs. The castle was quiet. Only a few servants were stirring as we wound down the stairwell, passing through the great hall. A fire roared in the grand fireplace. It burned off the cool morning air.

Moving quickly and quietly, we headed toward the stables. The morning sky was lit up with rose, orange, and violet light. Thin strips of clouds streaked the horizon. As we crossed the yard, we stirred up the flock of chickens that had just risen for their morning meal.

Aggie, the servant girl, was just about to feed them.

“My Ladies,” Aggie said with a smile. A tender girl with reddish-blonde hair and face full of freckles, she was always trying to help me improve my embroidery. Despite her best efforts, I left every lesson with bloody fingertips.

“Aggie, sweet girl, tell your mother I’ll be back by supper!” Madelaine called, referring to Ally, the head of Madelaine’s domestics.

“Of course, My Lady,” Aggie said with a grin. She winked playfully at me.

I grinned, rolled my eyes knowingly, and waved goodbye to her.

Madelaine’s capricious ways were well-known by the servants, but they never betrayed her trust. After all, everyone knew how vicious Alister, Madelaine’s husband, truly was. Everyone loved and pitied her, me included. And when it came to her household, Madelaine was always first to defend and protect them, though there was little she could say in anyone’s defense when Alister found a reason to hate…or punish…or want. I shuddered. I’d learned the hard way that it was dangerous to be close to him. I swallowed hard and tried not to think about it. Alister was gone, for now, and Madelaine was right. You could smell spring in the air.

The yard was a muddy mess. It rained nonstop for three days. All of the grass outside the walls of the tall stone citadel had been worn down to the bare earth. While the rains had finally relented, my boots were caked with mud by the time we reached the stables. Tavis was waiting outside the barn with our horses already saddled.

“Lady Raven,” he said and smiled as he held out his hand, helping me onto my beloved black horse, Kelpie. The steed was the last gift my father had ever given me. Given his bewitching color—midnight-black without a speck of disruption save his dark-brown eyes—I named him for the shape-shifting horse spirits said to haunt the lochs.

“What mischief have you been up to, my water horse?” I whispered once I mounted, leaning over to hug his neck and whisper in his ear. I inhaled his sweet, hay-frosted scent. The horse flicked his ears backward to listen to me then nickered softly. I patted his neck.

Tavis helped Madelaine mount her chestnut-colored palfrey then swung up onto his own steed.

Madeline smiled at me, the first rays of morning light making her red hair glow like flames.  “Ready?” she asked, her green eyes twinkling.

I nodded.

With a click of the tongue, she spurred her horse away from the castle. Laughing, Tavis reined his horse in after her.

“Come on, Corbie,” Tavis called as we rode toward a forest trail. “And don’t fall asleep in the saddle.”

The air was cool and fresh. Once the sun had risen, it warmed my raven-black tresses. Despite my best effort to keep up with Madelaine’s energy, my head bobbed drowsily. She and Tavis meandered down the forest path, flirting shamelessly. Madelaine’s red hair shone bright as a cardinal amongst the trees, her gown, the color of brilliant blue forget-me-nots, hugged her perfect shape.

After half a morning’s ride, we came to a lush green valley between three high mountains where a small, still loch reflected the periwinkle-blue sky. Large white clouds were reflected on the smooth surface of the water.

“Let’s stop here,” Madelaine called when we neared a small clutch of apple trees. She smiled brightly. Such trips outside the castle were a rare treat. Only when Alister was away could Madelaine roam the countryside, always with Tavis at her side, enjoying her freedom. She was, after all, a wild thing. She moped like a caged bird in the castle, but the forest—and Tavis—brought her back to life. Since I was almost always part of her capricious plans, I enjoyed the change as much as she did, though I hated to wake up so early.

Tavis helped Madelaine and me dismount then spread out a blanket while Madelaine pulled a wine jug and goblets from her bag. I took off Kelpie’s bridle to let him wander where he pleased. He went to the loch and drank deeply from the fresh spring water.

Madelaine filled three goblets and handed one to each of us. “To this fine spring day,” she toasted.

“And to my ladies,” Tavis added, tapping his goblet against Madelaine’s and mine.

He drank his wine in large gulps, Madelaine refilling his glass when it was empty. She then corked the wine and lay back under the trees. A small wind shook the pink and white apple blossoms, showering her in petals. She giggled when the pearly wisps of silk landed on her face, but she didn’t open her eyes. Tavis laughed and gently blew the petals off. The sweet scent of the blossoms filled the air.

“It’s getting warm. I can smell the earth coming to life again,” Tavis said.

“Humm,” Madelaine commented as she stretched out, seeming to doze under the warm sun. She was settling in just as I was starting to finally feel awake. From the way Tavis was looking at Madelaine, I had an inkling they wouldn’t mind some privacy, so I decided to wander.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” I said, standing.

“Leaving already?” Madelaine asked teasingly. Her eyes still closed, she didn’t see me roll my eyes at her.

Tavis rose and went to his horse, returning with a sword. “My spare,” he said as he belted the scabbard around my waist. His hands were deft, and as he leaned in close to me, I smelled the heavy scent of lavender oil on him. I breathed in deeply. My heart beat a little faster. “Yell if trouble finds you.”

“No trouble will find her,” Madelaine commented sleepily.

I raised an eyebrow at her but said nothing.

 

* * *

 

I stepped lightly around the lake. Salamanders and fish swam in the clear water amongst the high cattails. A soft breeze chased the winter chill away, filling the air with the smell of damp earth. Above me, a raven shrilled and flew into the valley. I followed it.

The raven flew from tree to tree into a very old forest. Here the trees were massive, the old oaks reaching far overhead. The bird hopped from one branch to another, leading me around a bog where bright-colored dragonflies zipped from place to place. It cawed at me then led me deeper into the woods. All the hair on the back of my neck had risen. Ravens were the emblem of my family. Surely the bird was a harbinger. I followed the inky bird to a stream where it roosted in a tall willow at the water’s edge. Cawing down once more at me, it then took off quickly, disappearing into the sky. My nerves were set on edge. I looked all around, expecting…something. But there was nothing. I sighed. I was in the middle of the forest near a fallen tree at the edge of a stream with only the eyes of the woods on me. I had followed the raven where? To the middle of nowhere. It was peaceful and far from the confines of castle life, but something told me Madelaine was having a much more exciting time than me.

Sighing again, I spotted a small clutch of snowdrops grew near a fallen tree. I picked a handful, relaxed into a niche amongst the branches, and started weaving a crown. I breathed in deeply. I loved the loamy smell of the earth and the sound of the babbling brook.

Intent on my task, I hardly noticed the passage of time. An hour must have passed when I was suddenly struck with a strange feeling. I felt someone near me. I looked up to find a woman standing on the other side of the creek, just twelve feet away, watching me. Fear washed over me; I bit my lip.

My hands trembling, I set the flower wreath on my lap and studied her. Was she friend or foe? Over one shoulder she had slung a game bag. An herb pouch hung from her belt, and she held a bow in her hand. She had long brown hair pulled into a braid. She wore the leather jerkin of a man and pants to match. On her hands she wore rough leather gloves, and the hilt of a dagger stuck out from the top of her boot.

“You are Gruoch,” she said calmly, her voice deep and raspy.

I didn’t reply.

“Gruoch, tell Madelaine the Goddess calls. Tell her to bring you at the full moon.”

My heart thundered in my chest. Gruoch. No one called me by that name except my father. When he had visited in my twelfth year, he and Madelaine talked in hushed tones deep into the night. Curious, I spied on them through a crack in the door.

“The Goddess will call her when the time is right. We will have to give her up then,” my father had said in his deep, gruff voice. I could just see him through a gap in the closed feasting hall door. A tall fire roared, casting orange light on them as they sat at the slat-wood table. His long black hair was pulled away from his face by two braids which were tied at the back with a silver raven knot pendant. His hair shimmered blue in the firelight. My father was a hulking creature, but as he leaned in toward Madelaine, who looked as thin as a goldenrod beside him, his rugged features were gentle. He tenderly took her hand.

“It will be hard to let her go,” Madelaine replied, and I saw her wipe a tear from her cheek.

My father kissed her on the forehead. “I am so grateful that you’ve loved her like she was your own. I could not…”

Madelaine shook her head and entwined her fingers in his, comforting him. “It was not in your hand.”

“But I love her so,” he whispered. “As much as I can. I hope she knows.”

“Even if she doesn’t understand now, one day she will. After all, we have the same blood in our veins. Our line must serve.”

“Yes…we all answer our call,” he said, touching an all-too-apparent bruise on Madelaine’s cheek. Such bruises were the ongoing handiwork of her husband, Alister. “No matter your will. No matter the price.”

Moving his hand away from his bruise, she replied, “We all endure. But where you can, use better sense than your father.”

Madelaine and my father were half-siblings; they shared the same mother. When Madelaine’s father had died, her mother had been wed to Kenneth, my grandfather. Their marriage produced two noble sons, Boite (my father), and King Malcolm (Boite’s elder brother), and so by marriage Madelaine became their sister and at the mercy of Kenneth’s decisions. It was he who had wed her to Alister in political alliance.

“Wed her to a kind man or don’t wed her at all,” Madelaine pleaded to Boite.

“May the Goddess let it be so,” my father whispered.

“May the Goddess let it be so,” Madelaine chimed solemnly.

That winter, in an effort to pacify strained relations with the English, King Malcolm sent my father and a small army to Wales to help English King Cnut settle an uprising. Heavily outnumbered, with reinforcements far behind, my father died. I once heard Alister say that Malcolm had sent my father to his death, eliminating my father’s threat to his throne. Maybe he was right. But at the time, the line of succession didn’t matter much to me. I mourned the death of my father.

As I sat looking at the woman standing across from me, I wondered about their words. Was this what Madelaine and my father had meant? Was this my call? This moment? Fear and excitement gripped my throat, strangling the words and questions that wanted to come out. I rose and took a step toward the creek, toward the stranger.

The woman smiled, her lips pulling to one side in a bemused look, and turned from the creek. “See you soon, Little Raven,” she called as she made her way back into the woods, disappearing amongst the trees. I took a deep breath, and with weak knees, turned to make my way back to Madelaine.

Chapter 2

 

By the time I returned
to the loch, the sun was high in the sky. I walked toward the trees where I had last seen my aunt, but I was distracted. My mind thundered over my encounter in the woods. Who was that woman? What did it mean that the Goddess had called? Busy with my own thoughts, I was surprised when I finally looked up and saw Madelaine lying naked under the trees with Tavis. I could hear their light moans as he moved over her.

Startled and feeling a bit stupid, I sat down at the water’s edge away from them, hidden by the high cattails. I felt my cheeks redden, but my curiosity got the better of me. Peering through the leaves, I gazed toward the intermeshed figures of my aunt and her lover. Their hands roved in hungry caresses over one another’s bodies. My aunt was beautiful, her red hair lying like a pallet around her. I felt ashamed of my curiosity, but the thought of being with a man excited me. At the age of sixteen, I was still a virgin, but I could be called for a marriage contract at any time. I loved the idea of being in love. I wanted to be wanted. And I hoped I ended up with someone like Tavis. He was kind and funny, and his body was glorious. His muscular back and round ass glimmered in the sunlight, enhancing his every curve.

Tavis kissed Madelaine passionately then lay his head on her chest. She stroked his golden hair, and I could just catch the murmur of their whispers on the wind. A moment later, Tavis rose carefully, tickled Madelaine’s chin, and ran naked to the loch. He disappeared under the water as my aunt began to redress. Eager to tell Madelaine what had happened, I rose and walked toward her. It occurred to me as I walked, however, that maybe Madelaine already knew. Maybe she’d planned it, or at least suspected, all along. I hid my eagerness in order to find out.

She spotted me as I rounded the loch and smiled widely at me.

Grinning, Tavis waved from the loch. I poured myself a glass of wine, sipping the red liquid as Madelaine and I watched Tavis swim toward the shore. He rose from the water and walked toward us, his naked body dripping wet. I looked at him without modesty. In the end, he blushed and began to redress.

“So where did you go?” Madelaine asked.

“Into the forest.”

Madelaine nodded. “See anything interesting?”

“Well, nothing as interesting as you did,” I said with a wink, making Madelaine giggle unapologetically. “But I did make this for you,” I said, handing her the flower wreath.

“Thank you,” she said, putting the ring on her head.

“Oh, yes, and I followed a raven into an old forest. A woman there told me that you are to bring me at the next full moon,” I added offhand.

Madelaine’s cheerful gaze turned serious. She took my hand and looked at me closely. “Who said this to you?”

“The huntress,” I replied, gazing into my aunt’s green eyes. To my surprise, they’d become watery.

“The huntress,” my aunt repeated.

I nodded. “I was near the stream by the tall oaks. A woman with long brown hair came to me there.”

Madelaine nodded and smiled softly. “Her name is Uald.”

“And I’m to go at the next full moon? Where?”

“The Goddess calls,” Madelaine replied and pulled me into a deep hug, squeezing me tightly.

 

* * *

 

I rode ahead of Madelaine and Tavis on the way back to the castle. The full moon was only three eves away. I felt overwhelmed with questions. Where was it that I was supposed to go? For how long? And why had my father planned this fate for me?

A mess of nerves, I asked to take my dinner in my room that evening; I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. Perching carefully on the windowsill, I looked out at the grounds around the castle. The landscape sparkled silver in the moonlight. The moon was a nearly-full silver orb. I snubbed out my candles, letting my chamber fill with silver light. The moonbeams made my pale flesh glow. It was late when Madelaine finally entered.

She sighed heavily and sat down on the side of my bed. “I will tell Alister you are being sent to a convent until a suitable marriage match is made for you, that you will learn the ways of the White Christ and to read and write Latin. I will tell him that this was your father’s wish.” She paused then, looking off into the distance. “The convent…well, it is a lie he will believe.” She turned to me. “My Little Corbie, your father wanted this for you. It has all been arranged for a long time. You will go to learn the ways of our family. It was your father’s true wish. Boite would not have his daughter turn to the White Christ, to deny the old gods. You must learn the ancient arts. Old magic flows through the beating heart of this realm. It is your duty to know these ancient truths. It is part of who we are.”

Neither Madelaine nor I ever partook in the ways of the White Christ. As a lord should, Alister kept priests in the castle, in particular, the annoying Father Edwin who always dogged his shadow. I avoided him at all costs. He was a vile man. On more than one occasion, Father Edwin had tried to
correct
my pagan ways.

Two years before, on a lonely winter’s night, a bard had sung the legend of Tristan and Isolde after dinner. In the ballad, the young lovers were torn apart by a marriage contract which ordered Isolde to marry Tristan’s uncle Mark. The miserable Isolde, married off to Mark of Cornwall, had tried to catch a glimpse of her lover by scrying in the flames. Through the eyes of the fire, the fair Isolde saw that Tristan had married another. It nearly broke the poor maiden’s heart.

I became enamored with the idea of seeing images in the fire. That night, after everyone had gone to bed, I’d tried to catch a glimpse of my father through the feasting hall fire. I was staring into the fire, trying to work magic like I’d heard in the story, when I’d felt someone come up behind me.

“What are you doing?” a voice asked.

I had been sitting there a long time. Maybe I’d been staring too closely into the flames: I felt dizzy. The heat of the fire had made me sweat. I never saw my father in the flames, but I’d seen what looked like a snowy white field dotted with ravens.

“I’m looking for my father,” I replied weakly.

A moment later, I felt the sharp sting of someone’s hand on my cheek. I looked up to find Father Edwin standing over me.

“Devilry,” he swore, his whole body shaking. “You are conjuring the devil in your uncle’s very hall! Would you bring Satan into this place?” His thin body leaned threateningly over me. He shouted with such venom that his spit splashed on my cheek. Shocked, I shuddered as I stared at the priest’s pock-marked face.

When I didn’t answer him, he lifted his hand as if he would hit me once more.

“Enough,” a voice called from the doorway. I turned to find Alister standing there. His long brown hair hung in a greasy tumble. His stomach had grown so large over the course of the winter that the bottom of his bloated belly peaked out from under his tunic. He was lighting a pipe, the red of the flame making a collage of shadows and red hues across his face. “Enough, Edwin. I’ll school her,” Alister told the priest as he crossed the hall. He staggered as he walked.

“Yes, My Lord,” the priest said, glaring at me once more, and then smiling before he left me and my uncle alone.

“Little Raven. Come,” Alister called. He dragged a chair before the fire, the legs screeching across the stone floor. He set the pipe down and beckoned for me to sit on his lap. He reeked of ale and the heavy scent of angelica root smoke from the pipe.

Still feeling dizzy from looking into the flames, and my cheek smarting with pain, I did as I was told. But my instincts were on alarm. I knew well that Alister was not to be trusted.

“Does it hurt?” Alister asked, touching my cheek lightly.

The stink of body odor emanated from him. His hair held the light scent of ox fat. Alister stroked my cheek with his sweaty hand then rubbed his fingers up and down the length of my neck.

“Yes,” I replied quietly, forcing my stomach not to revolt. My intuition told me to run away.

“Poor thing. I won’t let him touch you ever again. Don’t worry. But tell me, did you see anything in the flames?” Alister asked as his hand softly caressed my shoulder.

I shook my head.

“Come now, Little Corbie, I know your blood is full of the old magic. Tell your foster father what you saw.”

His hand rubbed my arm, his thumb pressing against my breast over and over again.

“I saw ravens…ravens in the snow.”

“Ravens in the snow?” he asked, his hand now rubbing my leg. “Poor girl. How frightening. Here,” he said, pulling me against him. This time, he moved my bottom over his pelvis, and I felt his hard cock pressing into me. His hands caught the hem of my dress, his sticky fingers sliding up the insides of my bare legs, my thighs. I gasped. I’d seen Alister use the same move more than a dozen times on the serving girls. I knew what came next. I just couldn’t believe he’d try it on me.

I tried to pull away, but he grabbed me roughly, squeezing my inner thighs, forcing my legs open. He tore my undergarments aside; I felt the fabric rip as I struggled to be free. But he was stronger than me. Forcing my legs open, he jabbed his fingers inside me.

“Don’t move, Little Raven,” he whispered in my ear. I struggled, feeling sick as his fingers jabbed into me. “You’ll like fucking as much as your sweet auntie does. We can keep each other warm all winter.”

The door to the feasting hall opened.

“Corbie?” Madelaine called. I saw the look on her face as she took in the scene. Her pretty features contorted into a weird grimace.

Alister let me go.

Gagging, I fell to the floor.

Madelaine rushed across the room, bending to pick me up. Tears were already rushing down my cheeks. My stomach tossed.

“Go upstairs,” Madelaine whispered to me, but I was frozen in place, staring, horrified, at Alister.

“Christ, Madelaine, you’re such a nuisance. Barren cunt. What good are you, anyway?” Alister asked sarcastically as he rose. Stepping toward us, he punched Madelaine in the gut.

Gasping, Madelaine fell to her knees.

“Whore. You’re nothing but a whore,” he said. Grabbing Madelaine by the hair, he lifted her to her feet and slammed her against the wall. I heard her moan when she hit the hard stones. He was advancing on her again when I noticed that a carving knife lying forgotten on the table. Jumping to my feet, I grabbed the knife and put myself between Alister and Madelaine.

“Don’t touch her,” I said, lifting the knife menacingly.

“Well now, what do we have here?” Alister asked with a laugh, but he didn’t come closer.

“Keep your filthy hands off both of us, or next time I’ll chop your fingers off,” I spat. I hoped Alister wouldn’t notice my hands trembling. I clutched the knife handle so hard my hand hurt.

“Well, there it is…now that is the blood of a true MacAlpin, not some half-blooded bitch from Strathclyde like you,” Alister said to Madelaine then turned to me. “You’ve got your daddy’s blood, girl,” Alister said laughing. He picked up his pipe and lit it, the heavy smoke twisting upward and turned and left the room, banging the wooden door shut behind him.

I dropped the knife. It hit the stone floor with a clatter. I turned to my Madelaine. “Are you all right?”

She collapsed into my arms. “I’m so sorry,” she heaved, grabbing me tightly. Her whole body was shaking. “Did he…did he ruin you?”

I shook my head.

“May the Great Mother watch over us both. He’s drunk tonight. He’s lost even to his worst self. He knows better. King Malcolm would execute him. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

My stomach rolled. I could still feel the sharp prick of his fingers in me, crooked, sharp and vile. I felt sick and angry. I felt polluted. And even as bad as it was for me, my heart ached for Madelaine. I knew that what I saw was just a hint of what happened between them behind closed doors. Madelaine had faced far worse, worse than she would ever name. Her body, all the bruises, told the tales she never spoke. In Alister’s house, no one was safe.

I squeezed my eyes tight, forcing the memory of that night away, and tried to focus on Madelaine who was still speaking of what it meant that the Goddess had called: “You will go amongst our wise women,” Madelaine was saying. “They are women of the old ways. They will teach you our faith, the ways of our people. You have no need to fear,” Madelaine explained.

“I’m not afraid,” I whispered. At least, I was not afraid of them.

Dark clouds rolled over the moon. Everything grew black. Madelaine fell silent and did not speak again until moonlight lit the room once more. “Your soul is very old,” she whispered. “Even as a babe, you were always…different. You belonged to the otherworld. I will miss you,” she added and rose, leaving me to my solitude.

Chapter 3

 

With the blare of a
trumpet, a courier arrived the next morning with news that Alister and his men would be home by evening. The house was set aflutter. The beds were filled with fresh straw, the stairs were scrubbed, the cattle slaughtered, and wine casks were brought up from the cellars. Madelaine, paler than the moon, moved through the house dispatching orders. Alister had been away for a month. The cooks and grooms had vacationed from their hard work. The serving girls had enjoyed empty beds.

That night, the light from Alister’s men’s torches glared through the dark, heralding his arrival. I watched from my window as he arrived at the castle gate and was met by Tavis whose formal position in the castle was sentinel and chief guard. Their exchange was brief and stiff.

The smell of roasting meats and wood smoke soon wafted upstairs from the feasting hall. I could hear the call for ale reverberating off the timbers and stones. Lord Alister wanted ale, not wine. I feared for anyone who happened to get in his way, myself included. After the incident in the feasting hall, Alister’s eyes never left me. He was a snake lying in wait.

I watched the activity in the yard. Some of my uncle’s men rode back into the night to their awaiting families. Others pitched tents around the castle. The smell of campfire smoked filled the valley. The sweet sounds of harps and bagpipes rose up from the hall alongside rowdy cheers.

A short while later, Madelaine rapped on my door and entered. “Will you come down?” she asked, closing the door behind her as she headed to my trunk full of dresses. We both knew it was not really a question. Neither of use wanted to go to the hall, and neither of us had a choice. It was our duty to attend. Ladies of our station were expected to make an appearance. Anything less could be taken as a slight to the noble lords in attendance. And Madelaine, most of all, had to play the dutiful wife, lest she earn Alister’s swift and brutal retribution. The cheerful glow on my aunt’s face was gone, and her green eyes looked haunted with the look of smothered terror.

Madelaine pulled a fur-trimmed black velvet dress from my trunk. I frowned but said nothing. It would gain me nothing to complain and would only make Madelaine feel worse than she already felt.

Once I changed, we headed back to the feasting hall. Loud voices, the stench of ale, and rude talk wafted from the room. Therein, drunken revelry abounded. The room was so brightly lit that it made me squint. Madelaine squeezed my hand, but I could feel her fingers had grown cold. I hated Alister. I hated his men. I hated their ale hall. I hated the discord it brought: vomiting drunks, groping hands, and my aunt’s sorrow.

“Ah, my niece,” Alister called.

The men whistled and banged their ale horns against the wooden table.

Madelaine led me to the head of the table. The room was so full of smoke that it burned my eyes. I noticed that Father Edwin had returned as well. He sat near my uncle at the head of the table. He’d grown a scraggly beard while he was gone; it barely hid his pock-marked face. I shuddered.

“Corbie! Come,” Alister called with a laugh. His eyes, already tinged ale-red, tried to focus on me. The smell of hops and body odor reeked from him. He’d grown fatter in the month away, his belly looking rounder than ever. And he had not changed from his mud-splatted riding clothes. I felt a lump rise into my throat. How abhorred it was to be near him. I couldn’t stand the sight of him. “How is my niece?” he asked, motioning for me to sit beside him. Father Edwin looked away from me.

“Well, Uncle,” I replied politely.

Madelaine turned to leave but Alister grabbed her arm and pulled her roughly back. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My Lord’s kitchens need attention,” she answered.

He let her go. “Then be away with you,” he said, slapping her on the ass as she turned to leave. He laughed loudly as Madelaine hurried off and turned his attention to me. “Well, Little Corbie, what did you do while I was away?”

“Women’s things, my uncle.”

“Women’s things,” he repeated then laughed. “And what are women’s things?”

“Sewing, gossiping, and talking about babies, of course,” I replied flatly, looking forward. Alister had no imagination beyond the obvious expectations.

My uncle laughed out loud. “Indeed, women’s things.” He set his hand on the back of my head and stroked my hair, his hand moving down the length of my hair to the small of my back.

My stomach turned, and my body shook. I shifted away from his touch, turning to face him. His hand dropped away. “Any news from court?” I asked.

“News?” he asked with a snort. “Nothing to concern you, lass, unless you want to talk over strategies, war, or fucking!” he said then laughed out loud, the other lords around him joining his laughter. “Though,” he said, leaning in toward me, his hand stroking my back again, “maybe you’re finally ready to start talking about fucking,” he whispered in my ear, “I still remember how sweet your perfume was,” he added, then sniffed his fingers and laughed out loud, his breath reeking of meat and ale. Mortified, I turned away. I felt like someone had poured ice water over me; my flesh rose into goose bumps.

“Here you are, My Lord,” my aunt said, coming between us, ”your pheasant.” Alister removed his hand. Madelaine set down a wooden platter in front of Alister. I usually loved the scent and flavor of the roasted bird, but my stomach felt sick; I fought back bile.

I slid over so Madelaine could sit between us. My uncle leaned forward, pushing his platter where I could see it. “Struck down by my arrow along the way,” he boasted. “Would you like a taste?”

“I’ve already eaten,” I replied.

My uncle grinned, pulled the platter back, and began talking to his cousin, Diomat, who sat near him as he carved a hunk of flesh from the bird. He shoved an enormous bite of fowl into his mouth, the crispy golden skin hanging from the corner of his lips. He pressed the morsels into his mouth with his greasy fingers, bloating his checks like a dead thing.

I took a deep breath. I tried to remind myself that it would be Madelaine who would pay if I lost my composure. Or the worse still, that Alister would lose himself again. My head ached.

The food was cleared and the pipers began to play a jig. The smoke burned my eyes. The men—the drunken men—rambled out of the castle to urinate, to vomit, or to take one of the scullery maids. I watched as Aggie passed through the room. One of Alister’s men grabbed her and pulled her onto his lap. She smiled and tried to excuse herself, but there was little she could do. Around the pair, everyone laughed. The soldier tickled her chin then stuck his hand down the front of her gown, fondling her breasts. I saw her cheeks flush red.

I turned and looked at Madelaine. She’d already seen and had motioned discreetly to Tavis. The soldier was playing with Aggie’s skirts, trying to stick his hands between her legs when Tavis interrupted and called the soldier away. Laughing, he dumped her to the floor when he rose. I watched her get up quickly and hurry back to the kitchen. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

What ladies there were in the room were pulled to their feet. My uncle’s cousin Diomat, against my wishes, dragged me to the dance floor. It took all my strength to keep him upright.

“My Lady is quite the beauty,” he said, his speech slurring. He stunk like fox piss, the strange gamey scent emanating from his very pores.

My head pounded, and I wondered if all castles kept in such a manner? Would I have to live like this all my life? I noticed Madelaine and Alister moving around the floor. Their words were heated. His hand held the back of her neck tightly. I could see his fingers pressing into her skin. I then noticed someone else’s eyes on the pair: Tavis. Commoner born, he had no chance, but he loved Madelaine. I could see from his expression that he was smothering his rage. How horrid to see someone you loved not only with another but to be treated so poorly. I pitied him.

Before I could return to my seat, Lord MacKay, whose wife was not present, asked me to dance.

“Ah, our little lass, how you would love the pageantry of King Malcolm’s court! It’s a sight to see all those ladies in their fine gowns. They look like flowers strewn in the wind. But they are dainty little birds, not hardy stock like you and your aunt.” He droned on and on as we danced, his hands resting too low on my back for my liking. I stepped heavily on his feet and didn’t apologize for my clumsiness. When the dance was done, I hurriedly excused myself, fleeing to my chamber.

The house did not hush for many hours, presumably until all the men had passed into drunken unconsciousness. I was trying to sleep when I heard the door open. Terror gripped me, but I turned to see Madelaine in the doorway. She slid into bed beside me. Exhausted, I lay very still. I had just started to fall asleep again when I heard her whimper.

“What is it?” I whispered.

My aunt did not respond. I moved, allowing the moonlight to glide past me onto her swollen face. She held a wet rag against her eye: it was red, puffy, and black. She looked deathly pale.

“Madelaine!” I exclaimed.

“It’s nothing,” she whispered.

I went to the water basin, moistened a fresh piece of cloth, and took the old one she’d been clutching. I gently pressed the clean cloth against her face.

“Why?” I asked. Rage made my hands shake. Violent anger swelled up in me. I was so angry I realized I bit my tongue. Blood swelled in my mouth, filling my mouth with its salty taste. I felt feverish. I wanted to kill Alister.

Tears rolled down Madelaine’s cheeks. “It doesn’t matter why. This is what men do. Husbands don’t love their wives. They especially do not love wives who bear no children.”

I felt sick. I asked said pointedly, “Your miscarriages…did they follow such cruelty?” How many little ones had Madelaine lost? She rarely spoke of it, but I knew she had lost or put into the grave at least six little souls, too many for a mother to count. “He beat you until you lost your children, didn’t he? Then beat you again because you bore none? Madelaine, you must not suffer this! Are you to have no happiness?”

“I have found some.“

“With Tavis?”

“Well, that is something different. You fill my heart.”

“Then I shouldn’t go!”

“You must.”

“Then come with me.”

Madelaine shook her head. “Only nine. Nine is the holy number. Someone else has moved on, and you shall take her place as the new ninth.”

“Were you with these women before?”

Madelaine nodded. “The world is changing, Little Corbie. Soon all will follow the White Christ. But all the women in our family go amongst the wise women when their time comes. Some stay for a short time while others train for many years.”

“What about you?”

“Scant months thanks to a marriage contract. The family needed an alliance with Alister’s clan. I sealed the alliance.”

“Then family duty comes before the old ones?”

Madelaine sighed. “You must realize your immediacy to the throne. King Malcolm is your uncle. As well you know, he had only daughters, your cousins, Bethoc and Donalda. While the line of succession will pass to the next male heir, Bethoc’s son Duncan, you must realize your importance. Any son you bear will have a claim at the throne. You are a valuable chess piece. They will marry you off to the most royal lord in the land, if not to Duncan himself, to ensure there is no rivalry. But there are many young lords who would gladly mix their blood with the line of MacAlpin. Your fate is not yours to determine. These scant few years you have before a match is made must be lived with passion. Learn what you can. Be who you truly are.”

I didn’t want to think about it, but I knew her words were true. I had always known I was meant for a bridal contract. But would they really marry me off to Duncan? My own cousin? Such close matches were not uncommon, I knew, but I shuddered at the thought. Such a marriage would also mean great things for me…I would be Queen of Scots…my sons would be princes.

Nonetheless, my heart sank as I looked at Madelaine. My womb would be used to forge alliances or birth princes. I would never be free, just as she had never been free. We belonged to the crown, and I was a prize like her, waiting to be reaped. I understood then something about the world: legitimacy and power determined your fate.

I sighed then kissed my aunt on her forehead. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I snuggled next to Madelaine and pulled my covers to my chin, my mind spinning. What if they married me to a man like Alister? What would I do with such a man? Outside my window, I heard the call of a raven. It landed on the sill just outside, a mouse in its talons. The mouse’s dead, bulging black eyes gleamed in the moonlight. With its sharp beak, the raven ripped its corpse to bits.

Chapter 4

 

The next morning, I awoke
groggy and starved for fresh air. Madelaine had gone back to her duties. My mind spun with a hundred different ways for Alister to die, but none of them seemed violent enough. I lay in bed and stared out my window. A heavy mist rose. Finally, I pulled on a cloak over my night clothes and went below.

I crept past the sleeping men in the feasting hall to the garden at the side of the castle. There, in the first of the morning sunlight, I knelt between rows of herbs. No doubt the cooks would soon, though lovingly, chase me away, so I quickly snapped fresh tendrils of mint, thyme, and other herbs. I thought their sweet scent would cheer Madelaine, and I’d often seen her brew the herbs into a draft. She said it calmed her. Something told me she might need them. The leaves were wet with morning dew. My fingers became moist, dirty, and perfumed with the herbs. I held the bunches in my hands and breathed deeply until the heady scent made me feel dizzy. I stuffed the herbs into my pockets and headed toward the front of the castle.

In the field, fire rings puffed up dissipating tails of smoke. The encampment was clearing; the men were heading home. I prayed this meant that the siege of debauchery was over.

As I walked, I spied a small trembling mass sitting near one of the abandoned camps. I climbed a small hill toward it and found a furry black body battling the wind. When I came to stand over her, she looked up at me with her sad brown eyes. It was a tiny puppy. She whimpered softly, rose on her six-inch tall legs, and waddled toward me, her tail wagging. I patted her head. She started licking me, her little pink tongue working hard. I laughed, picking her up and hugging her. She was shivering.

“Poor little thing,” I whispered to the pup. “Let’s get you inside.”

I turned to head back to the castle only to find myself face to face with Father Edwin.

“My Lady, good morning to you! May the Lord bless you this fine morning! Ah, what do you have there?” He was wearing long gray robes, a large wooden cross hanging from his neck. He peered at my hands with his sharp, gray eyes.

I looked away from him. “Just a pup. She was in the field,” I said and tried to pass by him, but he moved to stop me.

“A faerie thing then. Let me take it to the men and have its throat slit. You shouldn’t bring a foundling inside the castle walls,” he said, reaching for the puppy.

I clutched the puppy closer and looked down at her. Her brown eyes met mine. “No,” I said sternly and started walking toward the castle. I saw Tavis near the gate. He caught sight of me and began crossing the lawn toward me…and Father Edwin.

Father Edwin turned to walk beside me, still pressing his point. “Such temptations should be avoided, My Lady. The fey folk still play with high-born people such as yourself. Give it to me. I’ll be rid of it,” he was saying when we met with Tavis.

“What is that, Corbie?” Tavis interrupted, eyeing Father Edwin suspiciously as he stepped closer to me. I moved toward Tavis.

“Just a wee pup.”

“I told My Lady that it is the work of the faerie folk to leave such traps for young girls. It should be thrown in the river.”

Tavis laughed. “Have you become so suspicious, Priest? Faerie folk? You talk like a superstitious fool, scared of some bitch’s abandoned runt. Be off with you.”

“But, Lord Tavis,” the priest interjected.

“Your master is awake. He’ll be looking for you,” Tavis said sternly, stepping between me and the priest.

Father Edwin glared at Tavis then turned and headed back into the castle.

“It’s early in the day to start an argument with the White Christ, Little Corbie,” Tavis said, grinning at me. Clearly, he had not yet seen Madelaine’s broken face. I pitied the pain I knew he would feel. I pitied the revenge he would not be able to extract. I pitied his love. But I was grateful for his help.

“That is certain,” I said with a wry grin. I set the puppy down. It waddled over to him, its belly bulging.

“So, a foundling, eh? Have you named her?”

I shook my head. “No doubt she already has one. I just need to figure it out.”

Tavis shook his head. “All right,” he said with a smile. “But what if it really was the fey folk who left her? Or maybe even the little people of the hollow hills?” he asked jokingly. Laughing, he picked up the pup and was scratching her belly when two of my uncle’s men neared us. I caught just a snippet of their conversation.

“They say Duncan may take a wife this year,” said the first.

The other man laughed. “Nonsense. He’s just a boy. They will wait until they can make a sturdy alliance,” the other replied as he mounted.

“With King Cnut badgering Malcolm, no doubt there will be some movement very soon.”

“All the movement being done is being done by Thorfinn.”

“He’s just a whelp with a big ship.”

“He may be a whelp, but he’s allied with King Magnus of Norway, and he’s fostering Macbeth.”

“Shame about Macbeth’s father. Findelach was a good man.”

Tavis, also overhearing the conversation, cleared his throat loudly. Both men looked at us.

“Ah, Lady Corbie,” said the first, winking knowingly to his partner.

The second man turned to me. “And here is Boite’s daughter,” he said slickly, casting a knowing glance to his comrade.

Tavis handed the puppy back to me. “Farewell, My Lords,” Tavis said gruffly, cutting off the words lingering on the men’s tongues.

The men laughed knowingly then guided their horses away from the castle, gossiping like two old women as soon as they were out of earshot. I heard my name carry on the wind.

I thought about their words. My cousin Donalda’s husband Findelach had been killed by his own brother, Gillacoemgain, in a quarrel over the rule of Moray. Findelach had fallen out of King Malcolm’s favor, and it was rumored that the King secretly supported Gillacoemgain’s move to take power from his brother. Apparently Macbeth, my second cousin by Donalda, had heard the rumor as well. People said he fled to Lord Thorfinn of Orkney for protection. King Malcom had no problem striking out at his own when it pleased him, much as he’d done to my own father, according to the rumors. My elder cousin Donalda, now a widow, was back at court, and Gillacoemgain, despite killing Donalda’s husband, was now the Mormaer of Moray and the most powerful man in the north. I frowned as I thought about where I fit on that chessboard. Would they really marry me off to Duncan? I’d never even seen the boy. The thought of it made me feel indignant, but in the end, the truth was obvious: King Malcolm would move me soon.