The Raid of Balvenie
Maiden Who Survived
The Story before the Story of the
Nephilim Redemption Series
The Raid of Balvenie and the Maiden Who Survived is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright 2017 Cheri Gillard
Cover design by Spencer Gillard
ISBN for the EPUB format: 9781370765546
Ebook Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment and may not be re-sold. If you would like to share it with another person, I will be forever grateful to you for that and just ask that you obtain copies for them from authorized outlets or direct them to those outlets in order to get it for their devices themselves. If you’re reading this book and did not download it from a legitimate retailer or source, please delete it from your device and obtain a copy from such a place.
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
ALSO BY CHERI GILLARD
The Nephilim Redemption Series
Chloe’s Guardian (2014)
Chloe’s Watcher (2015)
Chloe’s Odyssey (2016)
The Clone’s Mother (2015)
I’d love to share Chloe’s Guardian with you for FREE!
(Please hurry. This offer won’t last.)
Thank you Spencer, for talking me through the emotional rollercoaster of being me, and for lending me your incredible creative and insightful advice.
And thank you Pierce, for brainstorming with me at the beginning, for cheering me on in the middle, and for cleaning up with me after the ending.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE STORY OF THE MAIDEN OF BALVENIE
The Raid of Balvenie and the Maiden Who Survived is the prequel to the adventures of Chloe and her friends in the Nephilim Redemption Series. This dramatic new time travel novella is set in the Highlands of medieval Scotland where a Scottish lass whose family feud with a neighboring clan brings disaster to her life, upending all she knows. This “story before the story” now brings new insight and understanding to the events which lead up to the opening scenes of “Chloe’s Guardian.”
For established fans, characters that you’ve come to know in the trilogy appear with new clarity, with secrets revealed that have only been hinted at before. With this thrilling release, learn the untold story of what brings about that fateful night in “Chloe’s Guardian” at Dunnottar Castle when the murderous and demon-possessed MacKay holds Horatius’ fate by the blade of his deadly sword.
For those readers new to the series, you’ll meet both delightful and frightful players who you’ll see again in the adventures of Chloe, providing you with a head start on the exciting three-book series.
Jean Dixson, a heartbroken but resilient Scottish lass, survives horrific tragedy but loses everyone dear to her. While she struggles to cope after a violent assault, imperious men assert they have the authority to decide her fate at the same time that scheming demons fight for the right to claim her soul. With the loss of faith and a hardened heart, she is cast into realms she no longer believes exist. Follow her as she encounters the Celestials who introduce her to the Unseen Realm, and discover how her choices impact not only her, but the many people—especially Chloe—who will come after her in the continuing saga.
Jean Dixson could hardly wait for the morrow. Janet, her older sister by one year, was to be married. The planned festivities were certain to be more fun than Jean had experienced all year. The elaborate food, the lively dancing and music, the crowds who would come to their home, Balvenie Castle, bringing all kinds of interesting people—her fingers tingled with excitement just picturing it all. She thought she might burst from the anticipation! Determined not to be forced into the boring task of last-minute sewing on her sister’s new gown, or tying together wreaths of flowers to hang on the tent poles, Jean skipped breakfast and took the back steps to a secondary passageway to avoid being seen by her mother in the Great Hall. Once she was safely past the busiest rooms of the keep, she fled down a hallway and snuck into the kitchen. She wanted to watch the feverish preparations for the lavish wedding feast. Surely her mother wouldn’t look for her where there was so much work to be done. Janet would contribute to her cause unknowingly, causing her customary fuss, demanding attention and complaining that her gown wasn’t quite right, keeping their mother occupied and unable to even consider where Jean was or why she wasn’t with them.
Positioning herself behind a table to get a good view of what was happening but staying clear of rotund and grouchy Annis Austin, the head rotisser who had little patience for her, she watched with awe as some kind of animal’s head emerged from the marzipan beneath the skilled fingers of Robert MacKeith, the patisser in charge of all the baking and sweets that came out of Balvenie’s kitchen. He smiled several times at Jean while he molded the paste, obviously unperturbed by her presence, and maybe just a little happy for the attention. He’d always been kind to her, never scolding her or making her feel like she should have said or done the complete opposite of what she’d just said or done.
“What’s it going to be?” Jean asked, fascinated by the detail of the animal’s muscular jaw and realistic ears.
“From our crest? Where’s it going to be?”
“On top of the cake. I still need to fashion the strap and buckle.”
“It needs antlers to look right,” Jean said. “Right now it looks rather bald.”
He answered without taking his eyes from his work of art. “Aye, you’re right. I have them right here.” From out of the clutter on the table where all of his work supplies were he picked up a stick that looked remarkably like a miniature five-point antler.
“Perfect! It looks just like one.”
“Hopefully no one will think they’re edible and swallow one by accident.” He grinned and winked at her.
“Except maybe Alick,” she said. “It might keep him from bothering me too much about dancing with him.” She said it in a whisper shielding her mouth to keep from being seen by Annis, Alick’s mother.
“You don’t fancy him much?” Robert whispered back.
Jean made a face. “He wants it to be him and me next year having our own wedding.”
Robert pushed one of the antlers down into the head of the roebuck. “Ah, I see. And you’d rather give your love to another?”
“Nay, it’s not that. I just don’t want to get married yet. I’m only sixteen! I want to do something exciting first. If I marry him, before I know it I will be having bairns and never get to see a big city or experience the things I don’t even know exist yet. What is there that is exciting about running a household? I would just die of boredom. I want to see things, meet people, experience life! If we’re seen together, I’m afraid my mother might make an alliance with his mother to sway my da to promise my hand to him. If so, I think I may just have to run away.”
“That’s enough now,” Annis scolded from her table where she was preparing a swan to be roasted. “Let Robert alone. There’s plenty to do without you staying underfoot.”
Jean figured Annis probably just didn’t like the fact that she could not hear what they’d been talking about. If her head had been stretched any closer to eavesdrop while they whispered, her neck would have been longer than the dead bird on the giant platter in front of her.
Robert smiled and shrugged while he rolled some marzipan between his palms. “They’re setting up the pavilion in the bailey,” he said in his normal voice. “You might remain undetected from your mother a little while yet out there with Boyd. He won’t give away your hiding place.” He winked again then tossed the small ball of marzipan at Jean, who stretched tall and to her right with her mouth wide open, catching the ball with the skill she’d perfected by practicing the maneuver over and over. Many bites had gone all over the floor in her efforts to master the ability, much to Annis’ dismay, but she’d finally learned to catch what Robert threw at her nearly every time. Chewing the sweet soft glob of sugar and almond, she mouthed “thank you” and waved goodbye. Being careful not to go too close to Annis, she scooted between two long tables that went along the far wall of the kitchen, past the pots hanging from many hooks, and pranced out the door that went through the bake house and then out to the bailey.
Outside, the steward Boyd Harvey was directing the servants to set up the tents and trestle tables. Boyd was especially fond of Jean and so let her linger around the men as they worked, as long as she didn’t distract them with too many questions. Boyd’s men were always playful with her. Jean enjoyed the attention as long as no one tried to monopolize her with serious flirting.
Jean moved from man to man, watching what each did. One was digging a hole to sink a tent pole into the ground to hold up one corner of a canopy. Another worker already had his pole set and was pounding in stakes and attaching ropes to anchor it securely. Two other men were setting up trestles and laying planks across the tops to create rows of tables. As Jean watched each task, the men greeted her, saying, “Good day, Lady Jean,” or “Are you ready for some dancing, lass? I hope you’ll save a dance for me,” or “You’re looking pretty today,” and they’d often give a wink or a toothy grin.
Jean moved over a few steps to watch the next man building a small stage.
“It looks good,” Jean told Callum as she bent down and looked beneath it. “You’re doing a nice job. Looks really sturdy.”
Callum grinned at her. “Thank you, Lady Jean.” He went back to hammering a plank down.
Jean whirled around to go see if she could find her da and see what he was doing. Alick was standing right behind her.
She screamed and jumped. “Alick!” she gasped. “What are you doing there? Why are you—I didn’t know you were there. Do you have to stand so close?” He annoyed her by sneaking up on her like that.
His yellow linen shirt stretched tightly across his chest, clearly too small after his last growth spurt. The blue and green tartan kilted around his waist and draped up over his shoulder was frayed on the edges. Jean was close enough to see that it had several moth holes in it.
She stepped back to put some distance between them. His brooch was missing a gem and one of the leather cords holding up his sporran had several knots in it.
“Huh…huh…hello, Jean,” he said, smiling from ear to ear. His chopped off carrot-colored hair stood straight up from his flat head, like a field of orange wheat. Freckles speckled his entire face and even his big ears. He’d clearly had his monthly bath recently, as not only did his face look clean but his cheeks glowed beneath all the brown spots on his face like he’d just scrubbed it hard. Or maybe the red in his ruddy complexion simply was from him blushing.
“Did you need something?” Jean asked after he stood grinning at her without saying anything more than hello.
He shook his head. Then apparently changed his mind and nodded. He stammered twice—because he always did, never starting a sentence without tripping over the first word a couple of times—then he finally got out, “I…I…I wanted to ask you about dancing with me at the wedding. You…you never gave me an answer.”
Jean didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to encourage him or make him think she was interested enough for him to get any ideas about courting her. But she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was kind of sweet. Except the way he followed her around and popped up unexpectedly right on her heels. That part she could do without.
“I’m already dancing with a lot of people,” she said waving her hand toward all the men working on the pavilion. “I really don’t think there will be enough dances.” She couldn’t think of anything better to say than that, but once she’d answered, it sounded like she was a cruel person. Who wouldn’t have time for a dance at a wedding? After they ate, that’s all they’d be doing all evening long.
“Eve…even if we must wait for the last jig or we have to add one after everyone goes, we…we can still dance together.”
“It’s just, it’s just that, well, it’s going to be a long day. I’m probably going to go to bed before the party is over.”
His freckled brow furrowed and he looked sad.
“We’ll be in the circle at the same time. We don’t have to be partners. We’ll see each other and most certainly face off a few times, at least.”
“I wha…want you to dance just with me. With no one else.”
“But Alick, if we did that, people might start getting ideas about us. Especially our mothers.”
“That…that is okay with me. I wha…want people to get ideas. I have ideas.”
“Tz tz tz,” Jean said quickly, putting her hand up and almost touching his lips. “Nay. Stop. Don’t say anymore. I have ideas too, and I’m sure they aren’t the same as yours.” She turned to step away, but he caught her elbow.
“Wha…wait, Jean. Don’t treat me like I’m simple. Jus…just because I talk slow, it doesn’t mean I think slow.”
“I’ve never thought that!” Jean protested. “It has nothing to do with that. I like you. I do. We’ve been friends for as long as I remember. I realize that. There is just so much I want to do. I’ve never even been to Edinburgh.”
Boyd, the steward, interrupted them. “Alick, would you give me a hand here? Hold the post in this hole while I—” His head snapped up and his heavy brows furrowed deeply while he squinted to look through the open gate past the wall surrounding the castle.
“Jean, go inside. Quickly, lass. Now!” Then to Alick and the other men around him setting up the tents, “Bruce, go get Laird Dixson. Move! The rest of you, come with me to see to the gate!” Letting the tent poles fall where they may and the canopies flutter to the ground, the men ran across the yard like their kilts were on fire.
Because Boyd’s command was so fierce and the men moved so suddenly, at first Jean bolted toward the castle. But halfway to the entrance of the keep, she slowed down and turned back to see just what had made Boyd react so. The wrought iron yett was off its hinges for repair and the drawbridge was down, and through the opening she saw a mob of men charging hard. They carried the Gunn banner. The Keiths had been feuding with their clan since the Beauty of Braemore had been kidnapped on her wedding day over a hundred years before.
Boyd and four men were scrambling to raise the drawbridge, but its chains were detached from the winch. The rusted mechanism was disassembled to be oiled before the wedding, its pieces spread out in the grass. The yett was in the armory, the smithy forging new rivets for the grille which had two iron lattices loose. The Gunns’ speed would surely bring them nigh before the portal would be set and secured.
Jean’s father ran into the bailey with his claymore drawn, Bruce on his heels.
“Da, da,” she said as she ran toward him. “The yett is out and the drawbridge is down and cannot be lifted!”
Before the words were even out of her mouth, when her da saw that she was in the yard, his eyes opened wide, full of distress. Then he looked to the gate where she pointed and worse alarm swept across his face. “Jean Bean, into the chapel, run! And stay there!” The chapel was nearer to where they stood than the entrance to the keep. He grabbed her elbow and nearly knocked her down with the force of his shove.
Chastened by her father’s abrupt response, Jean knew to distract him no more. She ran to the chapel and slammed against the door to open it in a rush and get inside.
Their minister was straightening the rows of benches. The sounds of the panic outside were muffled and indistinct inside the cool, dim stone church. He looked up and smiled.
“We’re being attacked!” Jean spat out.
He paused only briefly to sweep his eyes around the chapel. “Quickly, follow me,” he said sprinting up to the chancel by the Eucharist table. He lifted up the heavy drape that covered the table’s legs and flowed onto the floor in thick ripples. “Whatever happens, don’t come out or make a noise until I tell you it’s clear.”
The drape fell after she’d crawled beneath the table, shutting out the light. Jean curled up and tried to silence her heavy breathing. She could hear the benches rumbling across the stone floor. It sounded like the minister had gone back to straightening the rows of benches, as though nothing was happening outside the chapel.
“Hello,” he said in a calm, pleasant voice. His next word was cut off and a different voice roared. Chaotic noises came through the thick drape, sounds of loud crashes. Objects clattered over the top of the table and banged onto the floor right next to her hiding place. The table wobbled but thankfully didn’t fall over. More noises rang like the metal cup and plate of the Eucharist had been swept onto the floor. Many more clangs rained down around her. What had to be feet thumping against the stones of the floor passed by and went up the steps into the chancel, fading then returning. More crashes came from all around her, loud thuds and whacks of wood smashing and splintering.
Jean trembled so violently, if anyone took a moment to look at the table curtain, they’d surely see it shaking. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her hands were in rigid fists and arms were locked around her knees, which were tucked up as close as they’d come to her chest. She tried to stop her shaking by holding her legs hard. In her thoughts, she cried out to God for help, to her Guardian Angel to save her and her family. Silently, she pleaded over and over, “Help us, help us, help us!”—even as the drape was ripped away from her hiding place.
The angel Jabamiah was fighting above Castle Balvenie in the Unseen Dimension. He battled against the demon Zakun, contending for the eternal safety of his wards—the Keith clan—humans who dwelt in the corporeal world of Earth. His flaming quarterstaff crashed against Zakun’s barbed rod, sparking and booming with each blow. Jabamiah would use every particle of power he had to defend the humans in his care. If he could best Zakun and expunge him from the quadrant, he would attain a victory for good and diminish the influence of evil on the lives of his wards.
With a powerful strike, Zakun crashed his rod down against the shaft of Jabamiah’s weapon and hooked it, wresting it from his hands. In one smooth continuous motion, Zakun hurled the quarterstaff away back over his head and sent it spinning end over end into space where it rapidly disintegrated into ash. A new flaming sword and giant shield materialized in Jabamiah’s hands as soon as the quarterstaff was gone.
Zakun was a Watcher for members of the Gunn clan. He was driving their evil acts as they attacked the unsuspecting citizens below at the Keith castle who were innocently anticipating a happy wedding, a time of celebration. A ruthless ploy to strike in the midst of community and joy. Driving fear and grief into humans’ lives was a typical strategy of the Watchers. They’d do anything to destroy hope, to crush faith. Jabamiah parried an attempted hit by Zakun. He sliced to the left but Zakun blocked the blow with his rod.
Hovering in the air, the pair slowly rotated as they lunged and thrust, blocked and dodged. Each time one delivered a solid blow, the other faded and shrank, losing strength and dominion.
The demon landed a direct hit to Jabamiah’s shoulder. The angel weakened. He stifled a groan. He hoped he could hold out until reinforcements arrived. The carnage among the humans was growing. Even as he tried to match strike for strike, blocking many of the defensive moves with his shield, he sent word out again via the Celestial Chatter to call for more Pure to speed to his quadrant. His only advantage in the fight while he awaited help was that Zakun was using a fair amount of strength to possess one of the humans below. Zakun had only half of his essence in the Unseen Dimension where he fought against Jabamiah. The other half of his being was in the human world. His spirit was entangled with the soul of a human who’d surrendered his will to evil. Splitting his substance between worlds spent much of his energy and was helping Jabamiah gain a slight edge.
Another demon suddenly appeared at Zakun’s side, fresh and ready to battle. And with his arrival Jabamiah’s advantage disappeared. Jabamiah responded with an immediate message to the leader of the army of angels.
Of course Zakun heard Jabamiah’s plea. The thoughts of any Celestial were shared among all, both Fallen and Pure.
“Michael have better things to do?” Zakun grunted snidely as he slammed his barbed rod against Jabamiah’s shield, holding one end in both fists like a club. The shield held but shrank in size and became as thin as parchment. Then the other demon moved before Jabamiah could react, slashing a hatchet into his unprotected side. The hatchet cut through the angel’s vaporous flank, draining power that Jabamiah could ill afford losing. He was smaller and his white glow dimmed. He moaned in agony but fought against the pain. He struggled to straighten up and focus his attention back on the battle. His clouded thoughts cleared enough that he heard the archangel Michael when he thought back to Jabamiah that he was himself battling in another quadrant and couldn’t come. He told Jabamiah to ask for help directly from They, the Creator of all things.
Zakun laughed even as he struck his deadly staff against Jabamiah’s disappearing shield. Jabamiah faded more and knew that soon he’d be eliminated from the sector, banned and unable to intervene for his wards for a long time.
“They won’t bother with something so trivial,” Zakun jeered.
“Your desires are too inconsequential,” the second demon taunted as he threw his hatchet. Jabamiah somehow dodged it and it spun away just past his head.
A human prayer suddenly shot through the Celestials’ shared consciousness. Jabamiah’s ward, Jean Dixson, was sending a frantic prayer for help.
In one last attempt to postpone his inevitable obliteration, Jabamiah launched sputtering balls of fire at the two demons. The flame of each missal was weak and orange, but the maneuver gained him his needed moment. He could see Jean hiding beneath the table. A fiend reached down to lift the drape. Zakun wound up his swing to crash his weapon down on Jabamiah’s head. The second demon aimed his new crossbow at Jabamiah’s heart. They told Jabamiah how to intervene for Jean. Weak as he was, Jabamiah sent a miracle. Then with their final assault, the angel was extinguished from the sector.
FIEND AND FIRE
Jean looked up into the horrible face of the fiend bending down to search under the table where she cowered. He’d found her. She hoped death would be swift. Her scream was trapped in her throat, just like she was trapped beneath the table.
The man snorted then ripped the curtain completely off the table with a hard yank, rending the velvet with a loud zip. He threw the drape over at the pile of broken benches. The fabric flew through the air and landed spread out flat, covering the heap of splintered wood. Every detail was vividly seared into Jean’s mind, everything moving at an unnaturally slow speed. The fiend’s heavy breathing rasped in and out, wheezing at the end of each exhale. His plaid tartan whirled around his knees as he tromped around the table. Jean could see just his bare feet and the lower half of his hairy legs. Then he stomped back up the steps to the chancel. What’s he going to do to me? His claymore was drawn from the scabbard on his back and held high. Jean kept her hands fisted up and wrapped around her legs, holding onto herself for dear life. His other weapons clanked against his hip as he stormed back down the steps. This is it! She braced for his huge meaty fists to grab her and drag her out from beneath her cover. Instead, he growled and kicked the table backwards. It crashed onto its side, snapping off the carved apron that ran beneath the long edge of the table top. The wood cracked and splintered. With her hiding place gone, Jean was completely uncovered, a balled up girl shaking on the open floor. He stood over her, his claymore stretched over her. Every fiber of her being tightened, preparing for him to strike. Then he stomped away through the debris, kicking a metal bowl on the way, and he stormed right out the door. The bowl reverberated as it spun to a stop. The man was gone.
But he looked right at me!
Jean stayed curled up, unable to move. Except for the shaking. It was out of control. Her body vibrated against the stone floor. She clutched her arms more tightly around her knees, but it only made her teeth rattle more.
She closed her eyes again as tightly as she could. She didn’t want to see anything. But the man’s ugly, angry face kept glaring at her from behind her lids, his eyes penetrating her soul, stabbing her with hatred. His eyes hadn’t looked human. More a purple-black swirling quagmire of evil. The hate in them cut Jean to her core.
A thought broke through her terror: he might come back with more men. Then it would be even worse than she’d feared. I must get up, find a new hiding place! She couldn’t stay there, couldn’t give up and stop trying.
The minister must be unconscious, she thought, because he’d uttered nothing more since his first cheerful greeting was cut off. I should help him. She let go of her knees and tried to straighten her legs. The trembling made movement difficult. Rolling over and getting up onto her hands and knees, she looked out onto the dim ruin of the chapel. The shock of the attack was making her dizzy. The horror, then the relief, it left her confused with overwhelming emotions crashing through her chest. Her heart pounded so loudly it echoed through her head. She tired to get up. Rising to her feet was nearly impossible. Her balance was off and her knees barely held her.
Leaning over to hold on to pieces of the broken furniture, she lurched around and looked for the minister among the shattered benches. The tall wooden candlesticks were shattered into pieces, like the fiend had cracked them repeatedly over the heap of destroyed benches. Two of the candles somehow still burned, lying on the ground broken and bent as though their necks had been broken. Their flames burned straight up from their horizontal wicks. A small fire had caught on the edge of the table drape. Jean stomped it with her shoe. The heat quickly seeped through her leather sole but she smothered the flame. She still heard the crackling of fire. She spun around to face the other side of the chapel. One pile of rubbish had a much larger flame, one she wouldn’t be able to trample.
“Parson Paterson?” she called out. “Are you all right? Where are you?”
She lifted a thick plank off the broken furniture, her arms trembling and barely able to bear the weight, and found his feet extended from beneath, limp and drooping. Working as fast as she could, she flung broken boards and other debris away, hurrying before the flames engulfed the whole chapel. The wound on the minister’s neck was so severe, she knew he would never wake up again. The blood on the stones was enough to fill two buckets. He’d already stopped breathing. She heaved aside the last of the wreckage over him even though he was long past feeling anything.
She looked back at the fire. If she stayed, she would surely be in peril of burning up. But if she went outside, what nightmare would she find? She didn’t want to go out there and lose the protection of the chapel. Instead of leaving, she worked her way through the rubble to the table drape, nearly falling twice, her legs were so wobbly. She snatched up the heavy cloth and careened as fast as she could to the growing fire and beat the flames with the thick velvet.
The fire kept spreading to new piles of wood while she worked to smother the initial blaze. The heat toasted her face, making her skin tight and tingly. Many times she nearly threw down the drape and ran out, certain the fire would overtake her, but with just another slap of the wadded, smoking cloth, she would see progress and press on. As she flogged the flames, burning cinders flew up and ash billowed into her face. She tried to hold her breath with each blow. Tears poured down her cheeks, her eyes stinging terribly in the caustic smoke. But she wouldn’t give up.
Exhausted with aching shoulders and tight lungs, somehow she finally extinguished it all, and only in the thickest boards did any orange embers continue glowing. The roiling gray smoke diminished to thin ribbons snaking up from the hot wood.
It wasn’t until she sat hard on the stone floor, coughing the soot from her chest, that she realized the man had never come back. Maybe they’d all gone. After conquering the fire, plus eluding the man, she felt heady, almost invincible. She would go out and fight alongside her father if she must. She’d help save the family!
When she left the church, the yard was eerily quiet. Too still. The fight was over. Across the bailey, she saw someone lying near the keep door. He didn’t move. She was afraid to see who it was but too frightened not to look. His kilt was unwrapped from his torso and the long trail of it fluttered in the wind, blowing over the grass like a streamer. She faltered over, sobs breaking in her throat. She bent down and carefully turned him from his crumpled side. He flopped flaccidly onto his back.
It was John—one of Boyd’s men—who had been so alive earlier, laughing and joking, putting up the tents. He lay deathly still, so quiet now. His face was relaxed, not giving any hint about his last horrendous moments. On his chest soaked into his cream-colored linen shirt were three circles of browning blood. In the center of each umber circle was a thick, black gash where a knife had sunk in.
The ground slanted and Jean stumbled sideways. Her ears roared and her vision had spots. Certain she would pass out, she bent over and waited for the pounding in her head to settle down. When she stood back up, the ground wasn’t quite as tilted and her hearing had come back. Men were talking, a low conversation coming from outside the bailey wall. The voices seemed familiar, and they weren’t crying out with a battle cry. They were nearly to the entrance where the drawbridge was still down across the moat, clearly never returned to its place before the pillagers reached the gateway. Unsteady on her feet, she teetered toward the opening in the wall to see who was speaking, who was coming back. She forgot to worry that they might be the enemy, returned to do more harm.
Coming across the drawbridge, her father was propped between Boyd and Robert, each with their arms around him and his feet dragging more than stepping. He leaned heavily on them and his head was not held high. He was wounded somehow, she knew, but the only blood was a thin red spray across his shirt. It could have been from an opponent. His tartan was filthy. Was that more blood or just dark dirt? They took him as far as the trestle tables where they’d been setting up the pavilion, and they laid him down on a table that Jean hastily put back upright.
“What happened?” Jean asked, breathy and weak. Her voice wouldn’t project like normal.
Robert and the steward exchanged a look.
“Tell me,” she demanded, her voice growing in strength as she realized she would have to bear much.
“Ah, lassie,” Robert said tenderly, “They took your sister. Janet’s been taken.” His voice broke.
Her hand flew to her mouth.
“Your da fought hard to get her back, but others came out from hiding and hit hard. He’s taken a blow from a mace.”
She hadn’t seen it before, she was so busy looking for stab wounds in his chest like John had suffered. On the side of his head, a crushing wound was matted with blood in his thick dark hair. His eyes were droopy and glazed and he hadn’t yet spoken.
“Da, da, can you hear me?” Jean pleaded, dropping to her knees next to the table to speak closely to his ear. “Robert, quickly, go get Mother. She’ll know what to do.”
Robert didn’t move.
“Why don’t you go? I said, get Mother!”
“Ah, lassie,” he said again.
“What? What aren’t you telling me?”
Robert looked down, shaking his head. A thick glob of tears dropped from his eye into the grass.
“Nay. Nay. Nay, nay, nay, nay,” Jean wailed. She jumped to her feet and ran into the keep, knowing that’s where her mother had been overseeing Janet’s sewing.
The carnage was more than Jean could absorb. Bodies everywhere. They’d fought hard. It was up on the dais that she found her mother. At least it must have been over quickly, Jean thought, trying desperately to remain calm. Her mother looked peaceful in death. One would not know looking at her face that she’d met a violent end.
Jean rested her hand over her mother’s eyes and closed them the rest of the way. Jean’s chin dropped to her chest as the loss tried to overwhelm her. But with determined fortitude, she lifted her head back up. She wouldn’t let it crush her. There was nothing to be done for her mother, but her father still lived. He would need her to be strong. She raced back out, set on not letting her da die too.
For six days, Jean’s father lay in his bed, unable to talk, not responding to anything she said to him, even when she pleaded with him to please squeeze her hand, to please blink his eyes. But the blow with a studded mace to the side of his skull was too much. The sunken wound oozed both blood and water, soaking a bandage as soon as they tried to wrap it. When the sun set on the sixth day, his eyes closed completely and his last breath seeped out of his chest in one long tight whistle.
Jean wouldn’t let herself cry. She’d done enough of that the first day when they were burying all of those lost, including her mother. Once the burials were over, Boyd went with three others to find Janet. They came back with only worse news. Just like Helen, the Beauty of Braemore who’d flung herself from the turret of her castle prison after her wedding abduction, Janet had died falling from the highest tower of Halberry Castle where the Gunns had locked her up. But from what Boyd could learn, it seemed more probable that Janet had been thrown out than jump herself.
Either way, she was gone and any amount of Jean’s lamenting couldn’t bring her back. None of them could be cried to life again. Jean had prayed and had only gained living to see her worst nightmare. What kind of miracle was that? She was done with prayer.
They buried her father next to her mother among the many other new graves, out beside the chapel. They didn’t have a grave for Janet, for her remains had been swept away by the cruel, cold water of the North Sea.
Jean was in the kitchen cutting potatoes for Robert to add to his stew. With so many slain, the staff of the estate had to be reassigned and thinned to cover all the duties required for a place as large as Balvenie. And Jean didn’t want to be left alone with her thoughts. So she jumped in to get the work done. She now was head of the household. It was up to her to make sure everyone was taken care of. She had no appetite and could barely put any food to her lips, but others needed to eat.
Boyd came into the kitchen. Jean looked up. She had no smile to give him. Her face had become absent of all expression, feeling flaccid and empty. She was certain she’d never smile again. No amount of gayety or surprise could ever lift her brows or even widen her eyes, let alone trick her into smiling. She would never have joy again.
“We have guests,” Boyd said. “Robert, can you stretch the fare to provide for five more at table for supper?”
“I have swan in the larder. And plenty of cakes.” All the uneaten food from the wedding had been sustaining them since that horrid day. And even a week later, there was more left.
“Who is here?” Jean asked. An unexpected resentment welled up that Boyd hadn’t told her, hadn’t treated her like the head of the house that she now was. The anger came out of nowhere and surprised Jean with the intensity of it. She tried to press it back down, to attribute it to all that had happened, but when she spoke, she couldn’t keep an edge out of her voice. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Boyd looked at her with bewilderment. “I’m sorry. I was trying to not bother you. Of course, I should have found you straight away. Laird William Keith, Earl Marischal, the chief of the clan, is in the Great Hall. He’s come after getting word of…of what happened.”
“He’s a bit late, wouldn’t you say?” Jean snapped, sorry she’d said it as soon as she had. “Did he say why?” she tried in a softer tone.
“He has not yet. Robert, I will await word from you when the food is ready. Shall we go greet your guests?” he said to Jean.
She pulled off her apron and put it on the table next to her knife and the pile of half-cut potatoes. Worry mixed with the irritation clouding her thoughts. What would Laird Keith want with them?
When she entered the hall, three of the five strangers stood up. One of those three stepped forward at once, clearly taking charge. The two men with him who remained seated were much larger than he—clearly evident even though they stayed in their chairs—but the one who came forward oozed power and authority.
His claymore was still secured to his back in crossed leather straps. With Gunn savages on the prowl, everyone was wearing more weaponry and not removing them for any reason other than sleep, and then they were always in reach. Keith’s face was ruddy and his hair like copper. He was in his mid-thirties, Jean guessed. He moved with confidence and with the knowledge that his position assured respect and obedience, like he was accustomed to everyone doing as he commanded without question.
He reached out to her and clasped her forearms in his huge hands.
“I am gravely distressed by what has transpired here. Be certain the Gunn clan will rue the day they attacked the Keiths. How are you holding up?”
Jean remembered him now. She’d met him when she was ten at the games her family had attended down in Stonehaven when her father had brought home a prize pig for tossing the caber farther than any other. The memory stabbed her heart. She winced.
“No need to say a word. I can see for myself,” he said. “You need not worry anymore. I am taking care of everything.”
“I’m grateful you’ve come,” Jean answered. Her expression didn’t move. She didn’t know what he could possibly do to help. She wasn’t really grateful. She resented him, even blamed him for being fine, for being alive.
When the food was ready, Robert with an armory servant and a chambermaid brought in platters. The Clerk of the Kitchen was one of the servants lost. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, discussing last minute food arrangements with Jean’s mother in the Great Hall when the murderers came. Jean would need to find someone to replace him soon. There was too much work for Robert to do by himself. Annis was killed too. But her wounds didn’t show. She’d dropped dead when she learned what had happened to her son, Alick, who’d been cleaved in two out in the bailey with the others.
Alick’s death hit Jean harder than she’d expected. Even in the midst of all her grief for her family, she felt a different kind of devastation when she learned that the boy she’d grown up with, and who’d always treated her with awe, was gone. But there was too much pain. She stuffed down her feelings about Alick and decided that on some other day, when she’d dealt with her other losses, at some distant time, she might revisit those emotions—or maybe never.
Without eating a single bite, Jean sat silently watching their visitors stuff their mouths, talking and bantering with one another like life was fine. She grew more angry by the minute. After they finished eating everything Robert put out for them, Laird Keith pushed his plate away to the middle of the table.
“You will come back to Stonehaven with me. The Countess, my wife Margaret, is with child again and near her time. She could not journey here, but she wants you by her side. She loved your mother much and knows she’d want you to be cared for.”
“I am fine here. I don’t need anything,” Jean said. A flutter beneath her heart left her breathless. Leave? She couldn’t leave her home. Especially now. Who was he to think he could snatch her away from everything she knew.
“Nay, you’re not fine here. You will come. At least for a time. Once we find a husband for you, you can return and he will be the new laird of Balvenie Castle. But until then, you will stay at Dunnottar Castle with us.” He rose and called to his men.
Fury pulsed through Jean’s vessels, but she knew better than to express it. For her lost da’s sake, she would not disgrace her household. She lifted her chin and faced Keith with courage and pride. “I will ready my belongings.”
“Horatius, Panahasi, come with me as we inspect the lands and farms. The people will want to see me, see that their laird is about and hasn’t forgot them,” Laird Keith declared.
The two huge men who’d come with Laird Keith stood up. Jean momentarily forgot her anger and stared at them with open curiosity. As they rose, they just kept getting taller and Jean’s neck tilted to take in their full height. They towered over everyone, with shoulders as broad as two men each. Jean had never seen such big men. They didn’t wear kilted tartans and linen shirts like the highlanders of her clan. One had on black leather trews—long pant legs that disappeared into his calf-high black boots. His shirt was dark linen, tucked into the waist of his trews, showing off his powerful physique unlike her clansmen in their typical loose shirts. Many weapons were at his hips, including a sword on each side and at least three daggers. Another knife was in a sheath tied around his thigh, and even another in the top of his boot. A chain looped from his scabbard and back up to his low slung belt, clanking as he moved. It was attached to a weapon that was unknown to her.
The other giant had on close fitting leather trews too, but unlike the first giant’s pants that looked worn out, his were pristine, without a scuff on them. They squeaked with every move he made. His shirt was an unrivaled purple, dark and deep in color like a night sky right before the sunlight is completely obliterated, more intense than any dye Jean had known. The fabric of the shirt shimmered somehow, flowing in the light like smooth black water. The shirt fit him snuggly, making it clear that there wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t solid, enormous muscle. He too had weapons strapped onto his sides like he was ready for battle. His face was beautiful—not worn and haggard like the other giant. His thick hair was pulled back into a queue held with a leather ligature. Jean stared until he looked right at her. She felt a hot flush rush into her cheeks and she averted her gaze.
“Angus and Seamus, stay with the steward and attend to whatever he needs.”
Jean had forgotten all about William Keith. She focused on him as he gave instruction, trying to will her cheeks to cool while attempting to appear relaxed and not flustered.
The two called Angus and Seamus exchanged a look of frustrated displeasure. Seamus even made a small yet definite stomp against the ground, just like a child would do. Jean thought they probably were too young to understand that it didn’t matter what they were assigned to do by their laird. Whether they rode with the chief of the clan around the estate or stayed to repair the chapel with Boyd, it was all useless. They couldn’t undo what had been done.
Jean realized she was thinking them immature when they were probably a year or two older than she was herself. But she no longer thought of herself as a young lass. She’d aged decades in the past week. She’d never feel the spirit of youth again.
No matter what reason Jean gave for why she should stay at Balvenie Castle, William Keith ignored them all and continued with his plan to take her home with him. The last two attempts she made to convince him to leave her at Balvenie, his ire began to rise and she realized, with her own growing rage, they were headed for a terrible argument. She stuffed down her angst and turned a neutral face to him, giving him no indication of the storm that was seething inside of her, an upheaval like the worst tempests that crashed against the cliffs of Cruden Bay. She would have to control her enmity and devise some way to get back home as soon as she could. And without the new husband that Keith had already married her off to in his own mind.
She rode horseback, insisting she didn’t need a litter, letting some of her own ire leak out as she stood her ground. Surprisingly, Keith shrugged his shoulders and allowed Jean her preference on this one subject. She realized it was only because it would be easier if she just rode horseback because the men would not have to worry about a woman’s conveyance. But it mattered little to Jean why she won the argument. Her anger was illogical and she couldn’t control it. It controlled her, and for some reason it demanded she get her way at least once.
The maid who accompanied her fortunately knew how to ride too. Leslee, who knew Jean well enough to know she was not herself, stayed a little bit ahead of her. By doing so, Leslee gave Jean time to herself, plus it protected Leslee from any wrath that might inadvertently come her way. Leslee was not very far behind the two younger men who bantered and joked with each other as they followed William Keith, who led the company southeast across the green lush hills of the highlands. He set a slow pace, concerned for Jean’s comfort, but she didn’t care one way or another. What did one’s physical comfort matter if all else was already lost?
The two giants rode behind her. After the second day, they seemed to have forgotten that she was there and she overheard them as they talked. Jean hadn’t meant to eavesdrop but after a while, plodding along as they did with no other distractions, there was nothing to keep their voices from floating into her ears.
She learned from their conversation that they must be brothers. The one named Horatius talked a lot more than the other, Panahasi. Horatius seemed to become more drunk as they rode, taking frequent swallows from his wineskin. She hadn’t actually seen him imbibe, riding in front of them as she did, but his brother commented on his intake of ale, cautioning him to stop. Horatius laughed at him and paused in the middle of a sentence to drink more.
Jean sensed that Panahasi held in close check an excessive amount of animosity toward his brother, listening to the way he answered him with carefully veiled sarcasm. Horatius didn’t seem to notice it, but Jean, who her father had said had a keen ability to read people, picked up on it listening to their unguarded conversation. Horatius talked of the many deviltries they’d enjoyed over time together, laughing in a way that felt forced to Jean, perhaps trying too hard to convince himself or Panahasi that they’d had as grand of a time as he said. When Panahasi did speak, his sparse comments held disdain, Jean thought.
Jean’s eavesdropping came to a halt when another of the riders, the one named Angus MacKay, slowed his pace enough to drop back and ride alongside of Jean’s mount.
“Hello,” he said with a big grin. He flipped his head to whip his thick, long yellow hair out of his eyes.
Jean’s mouth remained straight and she returned only a restrained, “Hello.”
“Now, what kind of attitude it that?” he asked with a chuckle. “Surely you’re excited to get to the clan chief’s castle and meet his countess. Don’t you have a smile for me?”
Jean looked at him blankly and said nothing.
He chuckled again, not at all impacted by her cold response. “I bet I can get you to smile,” he said.
Jean looked ahead past him and focused on the copper red hair on the back of William Keith’s head.
“Ah, I see you’re going to be a tough one to get through to,” he said, smiling wide, completely undaunted by her brush off. “Come on, now. Smile. Smile for me. I bet you can’t keep it in any longer.”
That last thing Jean was going to do was smile. The boy was annoying at best.
One of the giants from behind her trotted his horse up along the other side of Jean’s horse. He was the one with the shimmering purple shirt, the brother with perfectly smooth skin and straight white teeth. She wasn’t sure which of the pair he was by name until she looked directly at him and saw his watery, half-lidded eyes and red nose. Even with his beautiful complexion, he clearly was the drunk one, Horatius.
His voice was syrupy and sensual when he said, “Is the young laddie bothering you, lass?” He lifted his lids all the way to eye her as though they were conspirators and sharing a private moment. Jean quickly returned her gaze to the back of William’s head.
“It’s none of your concern,” MacKay said, obviously irritated. He flipped back his long yellow hair again.
Horatius laughed, clearly mocking MacKay.
Jean kicked her horse to jump forward and get out from between the two men who were peacocking for her, as if she cared one whit what either said, did, or thought.
They left her alone then, exchanging some suppressed but heated words. Jean couldn’t hear what they said behind her, and she didn’t want to know. She pushed her horse even faster, passing Leslee, and she caught up to William.
“Laird Keith, how much longer?” she asked when he glanced at her with astonishment, like he’d forgotten she was with them.
“I said, how much farther? We’ve been at it so long now.”
“Not much,” he answered after he stifled his surprise. “Before the sun is dark we should be at Dunnottar. Are you able to continue until then?”
“Aye, that is fine,” she said. Her back side hurt like never before, but she wasn’t going to admit it. She wanted to be finished with the trek and stopping would only slow things worse. The sooner she arrived at Dunnottar, the sooner she could work out how to get back home.
Three weeks had passed and Jean was no closer to going home than the night she’d arrived at Dunnottar Castle. Angus MacKay was trying to woo her to the point that it had become completely laughable. Though Jean wasn’t laughing. She wanted him to leave her alone. The sight of him made her want to run in the other direction. When she was minding her own business out in the yard on a sunny afternoon, he came upon her and carried on like they were already lovers, speaking too intimately as if they knew each other well. When she was breaking her fast in the main hall of the manor house, he brought his trencher to sit with her and sat too close, touching his leg along hers on the bench, as though they were betrothed. She scooted away every time, but he didn’t take any hints. When she was doing anything she could find to pass the time so she wouldn’t go absolutely mad waiting for her chance to return to her own home, he always sought her out to flirt with her, constantly flipping his hair in a way that was irritating Jean just to watch. But she weathered his attentions as best as she could, not wanting to anger William Keith or trigger some kind of sudden, forced wedding. At least if she seemed to be slowly responding to their plans to win her over and accept a marriage proposal, it bought her more time.
Horatius came and went at Dunnottar on his own schedule, always wearing different extravagant clothes each time he reappeared, as though the garments were as easy for him to obtain as by the snap of his fingers—unlike his brother who only wore the black tattered close-fitting apparel he’d had on the first time they’d met. The contrast between the two brothers was more striking each time Jean saw them. Haggard Panahasi always guarded and mysterious, and magnificent Horatius, dazzling and spontaneous. While Panahasi was circumspect and never over drank, Horatius was impulsive and couldn’t consume enough drink. His casual airs were new to Jean. She’d never met anyone like him before. To her, he seemed to be trying too hard to prove to everyone he was having a good time.
Only a few times did Jean see Horatius completely sober, but his eyes held haunting pain. The other times, he was usually so far into his cups, there was nothing authentic or appealing about him. Drunk or not, he continued to strike up conversations with her, but he acted indifferent to her responses. Clearly he wasn’t that interested in her particularly. He just seemed determined to womanize and toy with people. He often offered her elaborate expensive gifts, so unexpectedly it was as though they were conjured out of nowhere, but of course she always refused them. He’d toss aside the tokens as though they meant nothing to him and move on to flirt with other girls in the Great Hall. Some of those lasses seemed less cautious than Jean and soon they’d surreptitiously take leave of the hall, surely to meet up with Horatius elsewhere to do what was no business of Jean’s.
One day, when Jean was watching Laird William Keith and Lady Margaret’s children with the nurse out in the yard, she was helping their young daughter Agnes, who was just barely two years old, weave a wreath of wild flowers, when MacKay trotted into their midst, out of breath like he’d been looking for her and suddenly, unexpectedly found her around the side of the stables.
“Oh, there you are,” he said with a forced smile that seemed to be covering up a bit of frustration that he would need to look for her at all. “I need to talk to you.”
Jean looked at him with impatience then remembered her goal. She didn’t want to anger him—and he did seem to have a short temper and little patience—so to appease him, she mustered a pleasant, questioning gaze, as though she actually wanted to hear what he had to say.
“Well?” he said. “Are you coming?”
“I’m tending Lady Margaret’s children. And Agnes and I still have some work to do on our wreaths, don’t we Agnes?” she asked the toddler, who was sitting next to her in the grass ripping off the tops of small white flowers from their stems.
With a great show of imposition, MacKay sat down in the grass too.
Jean scooted away so his knee couldn’t touch hers anymore and went back to splitting the stem of a flower and pulling another through the slit up to its bloom. She let MacKay stew.
After glaring at the little girl, Agnes—though the child didn’t even notice, which made him huff and puff more—he finally said, “There is going to be a dinner and dance on the morrow and I want you to accompany me.”
A panic swelled in Jean. Was this it? Was this the occasion MacKay had been waiting for to pressure her to accept his hand? The last thing she wanted was to attend any dance, and especially not with him.
She tried to form the right reply, frantically testing words in her mind, looking for some way to put him off without angering him more. She stalled by telling Agnes she’d pulled up enough flowers now. Then she fitted the string of flowers she was working on around Agnes’ head to see how much longer it needed to be.
“Jean?” MacKay snapped. “There is no reason I can imagine for you not to accompany me. I will count on you to be there with me.”
Jean kept her eyes on the flowers in her hands, moving her lips to begin a response, but loathe to say anything that would lead her one step closer into his trap.
“Jean?” he said impatiently. “Jean!” The edge of his voice was sharp.
Jean looked up by the stable door to see who’d said that. She didn’t know where Panahasi had come from but she was glad to see him for once. He’d never flirted with her, which had raised her appraisal of him considerably. If he was going to somehow help her find an excuse to avoid this, she would be immeasurably grateful to him.
MacKay squirmed with obvious annoyance then shot to his feet.
“This is none of your concern,” he said. “I’m speaking to my…to Lady Jean and your presence is not welcome here right now.”
“Nay, nay,” Jean said in as soothing a voice as she could. “It’s okay. Certainly, aye, absolutely, it’s okay.” She looked at Panahasi hopefully, wondering what he was about when he’d said she could not accompany MacKay.
MacKay began to bluster, but Panahasi cut him off. “She has already agreed to assist me with an undertaking that will keep her attentions elsewhere.”
“What? What are you talking about?” MacKay said to Jean instead of Panahasi. “What are you doing with him?” he said full of accusation.
“It’s a private matter,” Panahasi said.
Oblivious to what the adults were doing around her, Agnes handed a wad of flowers bunched in her chubby little hands to Jean, babbling a long string of unintelligible words. Jean took the opportunity to disengage from the conversation, which made MacKay even more agitated.
He took his leave with an angry curse, making sure each of them knew he was vexed.
When he was out of earshot and Agnes was distracted by a fat green caterpillar crawling through the grass, Jean said, “I’m having trouble remembering exactly what our arrangements are.”
“We haven’t made them yet,” Panahasi replied dryly. “But when I heard that ass so clumsily force himself on you, it seemed a good time to step in. I do have a matter to discuss with you. When you are free of this task, will you meet me by the fountain?”
Intrigued by the giant man who carefully hid his every emotion and guarded his thoughts so completely, Jean said, “I can go with you now. The children’s nurse can take Agnes back with the other children. Come on, baby,” Jean said, getting up from the ground and lifting Agnes, who shifted in Jean’s arms to reach back down toward her pile of flowers in the grass. With Agnes sideways in Jean’s arms, Jean carried her across the yard to where the nurse was playing a game with Agnes’ older brothers. Agnes fussed a moment but then quickly became distracted by a wooden toy wagon her brother had abandoned in the lawn.
Jean followed Panahasi to the fountain, where she sat on a nearby bench and Panahasi stood an acceptable distance in front of her with his hands held behind his back. He spoke evenly and quietly, his face more serious than she’d ever seen it.
“I will get right to the point. MacKay means to wed you. You clearly wish otherwise. William Keith has the power to force your hand. Am I correct so far?”
Jean nodded, intrigued by what he might have to offer. His assessment was exactly correct, which meant maybe he had a way out for her.
“I have my own goal which will remain undisclosed for now, but it may be that your goal and mine can both be achieved if we work together. Shall I continue?”
“Indeed,” Jean said, even more interested. Without realizing it, she’d shifted up closer to the edge of the bench.
“Discretion will be most imperative. Have I your pledge of silence, even if once you hear my proposal, you choose not to cooperate?”
“Aye.” Jean couldn’t wait to hear it.
“First, you must trust me. Secondly, I am going to tell you things that you must simply hear but not think on too much. If you ponder them too heavily, your thoughts may be overheard.”
Jean looked around, wondering who was going to overhear, at the same time wondering why he would say her thoughts would be heard.
“Those who would hear you will not be seen here. I will tell you more, but you must guard your mind. This is why. I am not of this world. I have been exiled to this accursed place for reasons that don’t concern you. But I am here and I wish to leave. You can understand a fraction of my frustrations with exile because of your own circumstances. My desire is for us to exchange favors. If you are willing to play a ruse, I will reward you by returning you to your home.”
“What kind of ruse? Is it dangerous?” Jean asked matter-of-factly. His proposal genuinely caught her interest.
“You will first accept the betrothal of Angus MacKay.”
That ended her interest. She would not allow that foolishness to occur. “No need to go any further. I thought you meant to save me from just that. I will not do such a thing.”
“Hear me out. It will not end as you think.”
She lowered herself back onto the bench, allowing him one more minute to explain just how becoming betrothed to MacKay wouldn’t end disastrously.
Panahasi continued, but only after letting the slightest show of his annoyance slip through his secretive façade. “Once you have accepted the betrothal, you will entice Horatius into a compromising situation. You will seduce him, and in the process, drug him—I will provide the elixir—and that will conclude your obligation.”
Jean was aghast. “Are you serious? I ruin my reputation and risk molestation? I think not.” She stood completely now and started to walk away.
“I can undo what happened to your family.”
She stopped. Slowly turning around, she titled her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you playing at, pray tell?”
“You believe in the one you humans call God?”
“I did. Before. I’m not inclined to anymore.”
“You’d be wise not to abandoned your faith so easily.”
“How dare you?” she said, facing him boldly, even having to lift her chin high to look him in the face. “You haven’t experienced what I did! I prayed, I trusted, and look what happened!”
“There is in fact a God, and an entire world of unseen things. I can arrange for you go into that Unseen Realm, to be taken out of the Chronos Band—the thing you call Time—back to a period before the attack at Balvenie Castle. You could then act to prevent what occurred and regain your family, your life.”
“You are mad.” She spun to leave.
His hand caught her arm. “I speak truth.”
Jean could only dream such of far-fetched fantasy were possible.
Panahasi leaned over and picked up a long stick in the yard.
“Do you know the story of the priests who turned rods to snakes in order to show their power to Moses?”
She nodded slowly, worried about what he was about to do to her with the stick. He had a frightening air about him. Suddenly the stick was writhing in his hand, a deadly thick snake with fangs and a flicking tongue shooting in and out from its oval head.
She jumped away with a short squeal, and put the bench between her and Panahasi.
He quickly snatched the snake just behind its head in one of his enormous hands, and with the other hand, he whipped out one of his daggers and cut off its head.
“It’s a simple parlor trick, really,” he said as he hurled the body and head aside in the grass. “It is an easy transmutation to accomplish. It is useless really, unless it proves to you there are things you cannot see, that a more true reality exists.”
Jean’s mind was racing.
“Don’t think too much,” Panahasi said. “You will give me away to the Celestials who hear your thoughts. They don’t hear me, soulless Nephilim wretch that I am. They can’t even perceive my whereabouts, but from you they can ascertain that I am near if you have too great an emotional reaction to me or my words. I don’t want them paying too much attention to any of this. You must guard your mind. Be disciplined! Don’t make me sorry I assumed you were strong.”
She stopped thinking. She would just have to jump off a cliff, so to speak, to trust this strange giant and give what he suggested a chance to work. If there was any possibility of truth in his words, she was desperate enough to try it. And if he was wrong? What would it cost her? Merely her reputation and honor. And perhaps get her harmed in the process by that drunken brother of his. She shuddered. Then she strengthened her will and stood up tall and resolutely.
“Fine. I don’t know what you’re really talking about. And I don’t want to. Simply tell me what to do, and I’ll obey. What more do I have to lose?”
“You must go to that celebration tomorrow after all. Let that imbecile ask for your hand and accept him. Let him believe you love him even. His response to your betrayal with my brother must be extreme. I need him to release himself to the influence of other powers. The more angry he is, the more completely he will surrender his mind to another. Feed his ego with as many lies as it takes. When the time is right, I will give you the elixir. You will seduce my brother, then mix it in his drink. He is easily distracted with his need for libation. It will be done easily enough.”
Jean suppressed her repulsion for the entire scheme. She took a deep breath. At least now she had a course to follow. Something to do to save her from such a disagreeable end as being Angus MacKay’s wife.
“I will await word from you,” she said and went back to play with Agnes, hoping the child would keep her mind on other things.
The Great Hall of Dunnottar’s manor house was filled with people who had come for the festivities to celebrate the recent birth of William Keith’s newest son. William and Margaret had opened their fortress to the citizens of Stonehaven, and the townsfolk had turned out in droves for the celebration. The food was nearly gone when Jean entered the hall, having delayed her attendance as long as possible, frightened for what she’d agreed to.
Musicians were playing a reel while groups of dancers held hands in circles while turning round and round. Jean watched from just inside the door wondering how long until MacKay appeared and began acting like he owned her. She’d told him she would attend after all, so she knew he’d be waiting and watching for her.
“Where have you been?” he said into her ear from behind. His voice snarled and bit.
Jean turned and with the movement put distance between them. She ignored his exhibited vexation, reminding herself what she was about, and spoke in as pleasant a voice as she could command.
“Hello, Gus. I’m sorry I’m late. Was the food any good? The dancing is nice.”
“What does it matter about the food?” he snapped. Then he seemed to realize he was being testy. He watched the dancers a moment like he needed the time to rein in his frustration.
“Shall we join the circle?” he finally asked.
“I don’t really like dancing.” That wasn’t completely true. She’d liked it before. But she couldn’t see herself dancing ever again, not when she couldn’t even smile.
“You will dance with me.” The edge was back in his words. He tossed back his yellow hair.
They locked eyes. Jean struggled with her will and pride, trying to stamp them down and find a way to act like a submissive lover. Her father’s face floated into her mind, and her resolve rallied. She placed her hand on his chest.
“Okay,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on his. A marriage to this one would be hellacious, she thought as he finally broke off his stare. He looked down, snatched up her hand, and led her into the revolving circles of dancers.
Jean’s heart wasn’t in the dance at all, and she blocked her feelings, deadening her emotions so she wouldn’t painfully remember the dances from her past that had been full of joy and laughter. She marked out the steps, spinning with MacKay, and then the other men in the circles as they came around, but her face remained set. She could not even pretend to smile.
After four dances, MacKay finally pulled her from the floor and led her to the side of the room where others were clapping along with the musicians and shouting out to the dancers. MacKay found a spot behind a group, next to a window, and he turned and took Jean’s upper arms into his hand and pulled her closer to him.
“Jean, I want you to be my wife. I will rule Balvenie for you. Laird Keith has given his blessing on this. You are to marry me.” No preamble, no declaration of feelings. But Jean didn’t care. He was fulfilling the next step of what she required.
“All right,” she answered.
His expression melted and he looked at her in amazement.
“Truly?” he gasped.
“Aye, Gus,” she stated without emotion.
Before she could blink, his mouth was pressed hard against hers, his fingers digging painfully into her upper arms. She wanted to scream. She pulled back her foot to kick him in the shin, but then she remembered. She returned her foot to the floor and waited for him to take his horrible mouth off hers. His eyes were tight, and she stared at him, enduring his abuse bravely.
When he ended the awful kiss, her lips throbbed and felt hot with swelling. His grin spread wide and he looked around haughtily, as if to check who might have seen him claim his woman. But Jean didn’t care. What did it matter? What she needed had been accomplished.
That done, Jean was suddenly spent beyond reason. She desperately needed to be away by herself, away from the noise, the gaiety, and especially MacKay. And to wash out her mouth.
Gus searched around, looking for a group of his mates, surely to boast of his conquest. Jean was of no concern to him now.
“I’m tired. I’m going to go,” she said.
He was already trying to work his way into a conversation with the group of lads next to them where his friend Seamus and several other young men were lusting after the dancing lasses. Jean simply turned and went out the door. MacKay didn’t even notice. She was relieved. She despised him. She didn’t know how long she could pretend to tolerate him. She wiped her lips, hoping to erase the feeling of him pressing his mouth so forcefully against her own. Hopefully, the time to act would be soon. Before she went to bed, she would find Panahasi and tell him MacKay had asked for her hand. Maybe the news would bring forthwith the plan to do whatever it was they were going to do.
Panahasi had known for days that Jean had accepted MacKay’s proposal of marriage, but he still hadn’t done anything about it. Jean was restless and nervous. MacKay and Jean had stood before Laird Keith and affirmed their intent to wed and Keith set the date for the ceremony to be a fortnight away. Jean could feel MacKay’s breath close behind her at every turn, keeping a close eye on her and acting like he possessed her already.
On this late morning, Jean was hiding in the Great Hall long after the meal and all but her own trencher had been cleared away. Her plate only had small bites picked from it, Jean unable to stomach very much. Her insides were churning with nerves, worried about what kind of bargain she had struck with Panahasi.
Jean tensed when the sound of feet came toward the door into the hall. She did not want MacKay to find her. But the footsteps belonged to Horatius who appeared in the doorway, arriving too late to eat and looking surprised as he surveyed the empty room.
“Where is everyone?” he asked Jean with a cheerful smile.
His moods were so unpredictable, Jean never knew what to expect from him. She was relieved to see he seemed especially bright and sober this morning. He was so often red-eyed and sloppy drunk.
“Ah, what lovely company that I find here. And to have the pleasure of seeing you without that feckless fool MacKay sniveling around you—if you don’t mind me saying so. He grows tiresome quickly. But he is to be your groom I understand, so I shall slander him no more.” He smiled the most beautiful smile Jean had ever seen. Then he laughed, and it was spectacularly authentic and natural. Jean didn’t feel at all that he was trying to seduce or manipulate her. “You, Lady Jean, are clearly a strong woman to put up with all that you have. I wish you the best.” He sat across from her and poured a cup from the jug always available on the table.
His charm was such a surprise. It soothed her frayed nerves and lifted her mood. She was drawn to him and wanted to converse more with him. “Good day,” she said, uncertain how to even respond to the many things he’d just said. “You’ve missed the meal, I’m afraid. All that is left is my own plate. You’re welcome to it if you’d like.”
She pushed it over and he pulled it in front of himself.
“Don’t mind if I do. I haven’t eaten for a while.”
“I haven’t seen you for a couple of days.”
He waved it off. “I needed to be elsewhere. But here I am now,” he said, resting both arms on the table and dazzling her with his bright grin. “Is there anything interesting happening around Dunnottar Castle and in the realm watched over by my good friend William Keith?”
Jean was quite surprised at how clear his eyes were. He was full of energy, like a new person. The transformation was astonishing. Then she realized she was staring and sat back. She brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes to hide her embarrassment.
“You’re blushing,” he said.
Jean touched her fingertips to her hot cheek. “I’m sorry. You caught me staring. You just look so different. Before you were so….” She caught herself before insulting him, before bringing up his usual bleary-eyed intemperance. “I am surprised is all.”
His marvelous laugh bounced out of his chest again and almost pulled a smile from her.
“Indeed. You are quite right, so no need to be uncomfortable. I have a method for quick recovery. It rejuvenates me. You are seeing its effects.” He took a large bite of the roasted goose on the trencher she’d surrendered to him.
“Seamus sat on his dagger and needed the wound to be sewn closed.”
Horatius raised his eyes with a questioning gaze as his teeth sank into a big bite of goose.
“You asked what has been happening here. The most interesting thing was that Seamus cut open his arse yesterday. No one wanted to help, no one who had experience with a needle. Graham said he’d be happy to stitch it. But Seamus said he’d just as soon live with a sliced open arse then let Graham and his clumsy hands attempt to sew it. Finally, Lady Margaret was called and she consented to do the stitching. Everyone agrees she does the finest work. She used the most colorful threads and really made a work of art. Afterwards—after a great deal of very loud complaining from Seamus during the ordeal—once he recovered his composure, he was showing the work of art across his hip to everyone who would look. He said it looked exactly like a lion’s head.”
The laugh came again. And the smallest of smiles crept onto Jean’s lips. The sensation was startling after not moving her mouth so for such a long time and thinking she never would again.
They talked on for the longest time, Jean completely unaware of the passing time. Eventually their lighthearted conversation turned to more serious talk when Horatius asked her about her family and how she was faring after such a difficult time.
“I keep seeing my father in his last days. I can’t remember what he looked like when he was full of life and vigor. That disturbs me day and night, that I can’t summon his face when he was alive.”
Horatius laid his hand over hers. The warmth and weight of it was an unexpected comfort to Jean. She reveled in his care and let his hand stay.
“Is your father living?” she asked him in a quiet voice.
“We are at odds currently,” he answered. “I do not really understand it. I have done something to anger him, but don’t know what.”
“Like with your brother, Panahasi?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Somehow, she wasn’t even bothered that she might have stumbled onto an awkward topic. “Oh, I thought you two were at odds.”
Horatius shook his head. “No, we enjoy our camaraderie. We don’t always agree of course, but we bear no malice toward one another.”
“That is good. One shouldn’t want to waste time on trivial things. My sister used to vex me beyond tolerance. But I would give anything to have her back.”
Horatius squeezed her hand in his and gave her a compassionate gaze.
“What goes on here?” Angus MacKay yelled. “Lay your hands off my betrothed!”
Angus had come upon them completely unseen and unheard. Jean jumped back, the blush burning into her face. Then anger raged through her that Angus would turn a tender, innocent moment into something questionable.
“You take any woman you wish around here, but you will not take my woman!” Angus pulled his sword and pointed it directly at Horatius. “And you certainly will not take Balvenie Castle from me!”
Horatius slowly rose from his bench. He looked like an experienced animal handler facing a wild bear. He remained steady and cool while the color flamed in Angus’ sweaty face.
“Put your sword away, MacKay,” Horatius said quietly. As he stood and his full height towered over Angus, Angus took a step back and his sword tip dropped a perceivable amount. “Nothing happened here. Your lady was taken with grief and I only offered a moment’s sympathy. Perhaps if you spent less time carousing with your mates and gave even a wee bit of kindness to your intended, she would not need to come to others for comfort.”
Jean was suddenly defensive. “I did not come to Horatius for comfort. It just happened. I was here. He came in.” Her anger flared more, feeling she had to explain herself. She’d been enjoying talking to someone who finally cared enough to ask after her to see how she fared. No one else had done that. And now Gus had turned it around. Plus, he dared to presume that her home was already his. His audacity enraged her.
Angus lifted his sword again, shaking it at Horatius, and started yelling. Horatius lost his cool control and raised his voice too. Jean jumped in to add her defense and keep them from talking about her as though she were only a piece of property, a mere object with which they could play tug-of-war. They both ignored her.
William Keith hurried into the room, waived in by a servant who’d been drawn to the Great Hall after the yelling started. A growing crowd of servants watched from the doorway.
“Put your sword away, MacKay. We’re all friends here,” Laird Keith said.
“He’s no friend of mine!” Angus shouted.
“Sheathe your weapon, man!” Keith demanded again. He put his hand on his own claymore, preparing to draw it out. “I’m warning you, Angus.”
Angus growled as he grabbed his leather scabbard in one fist and lined up the tip of his sword to its top and plunged it down inside. His narrowed eyes shot daggers at Horatius.
“What’s this all about?” Keith demanded.
“I found him with his hands all over—”
“That’s ludicrous!” Jean snapped at the same time Horatius said, “He is being ridiculous.”
“Slow down,” Keith said. “One at a time. Angus, you seem most determined to run someone through. Tell me true. What did you actually see.”
Angus’ chest rose and fell as his breath sliced in and out of flaring nostrils. Before he started to speak, a noise at the door drew his attention. Everyone followed his line of sight. Panahasi was in the doorway, sending the curious servants scattering. He sauntered toward the group by the head table, his sword in his hand twirling languidly at his hip in a sweeping arc.
“I heard arms were needed to calm a brawl. Am I too late to intervene?” he asked. “Has my brother molested someone’s lady again?”
Jean didn’t like the mockery and contempt in his words. She hadn’t seen the sarcasm in him so undisguised before. Everyone was shocking her today with their unexpected responses.
“Relax, Panahasi. I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it without bloodshed. Isn’t that right, Angus?” Keith said firmly.
“He is trying to cuckold me!” Angus burst out. “I want you to banish him from Dunnottar. He is only trouble. Send him forth and then I can agree to no bloodshed.”
Keith laughed. “You’re being overly sensitive. It’s your upcoming vows putting you on edge. There is no need to subjugate the man. He is friend, not foe.”
Several curse words exploded from Angus’ mouth, some of them words Jean had not even heard before but she could tell they were vile.
“That’s enough, MacKay. Jean knows to whom she belongs. She would not neglect her obligation to you. Go outside and cool off. Mayhap a ride to town would give you time to put things in perspective. You go on now and return at supper when your anger has abated.”
Angus’ eyes flashed around the group, glaring at everyone there. When he got to Jean, something very frightening glinted in his hard expression. She shrank beneath his stare. Without another word, he spun on his heel and stormed out of the hall.
“Well, that was an unfortunate occurrence,” Horatius said. “I nearly needed to do something unprecedented to him. It would have shocked everyone. Much better he simply leave. You came in just in time, Will. I will stay out of his path for a time.” He avoided looking at Jean.
“That would be wise,” Keith said. “Please do. That hot-headed young lad has some lessons yet on discretion, I’m afraid. I hope he learns from this. A few hours from now and I’m sure he’ll be back to his former self again.” Keith left through one door and Horatius departed via the other.
“Beautifully played,” Panahasi said once everyone else was gone. “You couldn’t have done any better to set the stage for what we are about.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Jean protested. “It was all just a misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding to weave the web of suspicion and distrust. It is perfect.”
Jean hated him thinking she was so calculating and heartless.
“Don’t make such a face,” Panahasi said, chiding her. “Do you not want to return home? To gain back what you’ve lost?”
She wanted to go home, of course. But she was having a difficult time keeping things in perspective. She certainly didn’t really believe that she could get her lost family back. She couldn’t even really remember what Panahasi had told her, she been so careful no to listen too closely. But when she’d said she’d do anything to get back home, she’d meant it. She would go forward with their plans. She would let unfold whatever Panahasi put into play with the hope that somehow she could stand looking like a shameful girl and live with the consequences of defying the chief of the clan.
“That’s better,” he said when she’d visibly reacted to her new resolve to proceed by standing tall and holding up her head. “Tonight will be the night.” He reached into his boot top and pulled out a small bottle with a cork in its top. “Entice my brother to meet you in the smithy. Have drinks there and put this in his cup. I will do the rest.”
“But do you think he’ll come? Especially after this?”
“You don’t know him like I do. He’s already seeking out his next drink, I promise you that. You seduce him and he will belong to you.”
As Jean reached to take the bottle from Panahasi, her hand was shaking. She tried to still it, but she couldn’t.
Panahasi chuckled at her. “Don’t worry. It’s perfectly human to be nervous. I’d worry if you weren’t. I’ll see you again tonight.”
Horatius had his hands all over her. Jean had to keep scooting away, which was difficult within the crowded confines of the smithy and Horatius’ huge size. Counters lined the walls, covered with iron tools and half finished metal objects. Backed up against the workbench, she was slithering her way around the entire periphery of the room trying to put some distance between herself and Horatius. They knocked many tools in a clattering jumble onto the floor, but the noise was lost in the raging thunder storm crashing down outside the small blacksmith’s hut.
He was kissing her neck when she ducked to the side even one more time.
“Why do you keep resisting me?” he said, bewildered. “You are the one who enticed me to come.” He’d arrived already more than a little drunk. Jean wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. She hoped it would help him believe her inconsistent words.
“I just need a little time, all right? You’re going so fast.”
“I thought you wanted me here.” Lightning flashed through a small window and it illuminated Horatius’ features. In his drunken state, his face looked like his feelings were hurt.
“Of course. I do. But you must realize. I have never been alone with a man. It’s just that I’m nervous.” She needed to figure out how to get him to drink the elixir before anything happened between them.
His unguarded grin showed his surprisingly perfect teeth—white and straight with none missing. She’d never met anyone with so many, and all of them lined up. They glowed in some rapid flashes of lightning. The booming thunder came almost at the same moment as the light, rattling the smithy with a deafening sound. Horatius said, “You should have some ale. It will help you relax.”
She’d already put two cups on the anvil, having set up for their meeting before Horatius came in, soaked and dripping with rain. She’d carefully put Panahasi’s elixir in the larger of the two cups. “I’ve poured us some already. They’re right over there.” She hoped he hadn’t knocked them over in his clumsy, impetuous efforts to make love to her.
When the lightning wasn’t flashing, the light in the smithy was quite low—just a small candle Jean had set by the far wall to keep from the wind and from glowing out the window—and so it took a moment for Horatius in his drunken state to focus on the anvil and see the cups.
Then his eyes opened wide. “Ah, you like romance. I should have brought you a flower. Your beauty deserves a bouquet.” He searched around like he might actually find a flower in the iron shop to give to her. He picked up a small brush, and before Jean’s very eyes, somehow he flicked his wrist and tricked her vision. Or probably it was the lightning that fooled her. The brush seemed to have become a fistful of lovely red blossoms, their fragrance heady and sweet.
“How did you do that?” Jean gasped. “You made it look like—where were those hiding? It looked like they actually changed in front of me!”
“For you,” he said, bowing and offering the bouquet. “Beauty for beauty.”
Jean took them. “That was incredible!”
His teeth glowed. “I’m glad you are pleased.” More thunder boomed.
For a moment Jean forgot what she was there for. Then the remembered task rushed back with renewed anxiety and letdown. “Let’s share a drink, shall we?” She needed to get him drinking so Panahasi could do whatever he had planned, and Jean could get the night over with.
She took his hand and pulled him toward the anvil. She was laying down the flowers when he lifted the cups and handed her one—the larger one—and said, “To passion and beauty.”
Jean’s heart thumped hard and fast. He was offering her the wrong one, the one with the drug in it. She tried not to panic and reached for the smaller cup in his other hand. “Here,” she said trying to pull it from his grasp. “I’m so much smaller than you, I can’t drink the amount that you can. I’ll fall over if I have the same as you.”
“Then just don’t drink as much.”
She was afraid that insisting on the smaller cup would look suspicious. What should I do? She froze, uncertain of her next move. He wasn’t letting go of the smaller cup and still held forward the larger one.
“Go ahead. You’ll relax,” he said. “Have some. Have a lot.”
She pulled on the smaller cup and it suddenly came loose from his hand. But she didn’t have a good hold on it, her hands shaking as they were. The cup fell to the floor, spilling the contents across her feet and splattering up onto her ankles.
Horatius chuckled. “Oops. Now we’ll get to share a cup.”
As Jean bent down to pick up the dropped cup, her mind was racing. What should she do? She’d never asked Panahasi what his elixir did. Could she risk even touching it to her lips? Would it kill her instantaneously?
When she stood up, Horatius—with the ever-present grin he had when he was intoxicated—held out the larger cup with the poison in it. “Don’t worry about it. Please, drink. For both our sakes. You really will feel better.” He thrust it forward and waited for her to accept it.
With trembling hands, she took the cup. With no other option, she put it to her mouth and clamped her lips down tightly while she lifted it high. If she died—she suddenly realized—it would matter little to her. There was no one left who loved her. She wasn’t living anymore. Not really. For the first time she felt life wasn’t precious. If death came, she would welcome it. The cool liquid washed over her lips while she pretended to swallow. She nearly took a mouthful, just to get it all over with. But Horatius spoke and snapped her out of the dreamlike moment.
“Save at least a little for me.” He chuckled.
When she lowered the cup, her mouth was wet with the ale. And Horatius was right in her face.
He put his lips on her mouth before she knew what was happening and gave her a long, soft kiss. It was nothing like the kiss Angus has forced on her. After a moment of allowing the deep, ardent connection—completely knocked off guard and swept away by his gentle passion—Jean whimpered and tried, at least a little, to pull back. But he cradled her head with his huge hand and held her firmly in place. She almost didn’t mind.
When he finally ended the kiss, with her head still resting in his enormous palm, he licked his lips, tilting his head in thought.
“That’s an interesting flavor. What is that?” He gently released her head and wrapped both of his hands around the outside of her hands, trapping them between his own and the cup. He pulled the cup along with her hands to his mouth, seductively keeping his eyes locked on hers. After a lengthened moment of gazing at her, he looked down into the liquid and sniffed. He took a small sip. “That is different.”
He’d detected the elixir! The enchantment evaporated and her heart slammed against the inside of her ribs. Would he know what she’d done? What will he do to me? A crash of thunder made her jump. She barely suppressed a scream.
“Not bad.” He downed a long swill. “Where did you get it?”
Jean shrugged in the midst of her trembling, afraid to say too much. “William?” she tried, her voice breaking, still afraid he knew something was off. “His cellar?”
Horatius laughed. “He certainly has a good stock of ales. He’s never shared this one with me.” He let her hands go and held the cup by the stem in one hand, taking another sip and letting it sit in his mouth while he breathed deeply through his nose. After he swallowed, he said, “I’m an expert in ales you know. And in scotch whiskey. I make my own. I create one like what you would find at Glenfiddich distillery. Well, not you. It won’t be in existence until the nineteenth century.” His words were slurred and they made no sense whatsoever to Jean.
He took another deep drink then offered her another turn.
“It burns my throat,” she said, remembering her mother once saying that she didn’t like ale because of its burn.
“But you haven’t had enough yet for it to relax you. You should have more.”
She pointed to the jug on the counter. “There’s more if I want it.”
He gave a quick nod. “Okay then.” He turned up the bottom of the cup and drained it. He set it down hard on the anvil. Then he turned his heavily lidded eyes to her in a new seductive expression. “Come here,” he crooned. “Let me show you the ways of love. Relax and trust me. I’ll take good care of you.”
He wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet into his overpowering embrace, and pressed his body against hers. The edge of the counter behind her dug into the small of her back. He kissed her neck and collarbones. The last thing she could do was relax. His hands roved up and down her body. As soon as she pushed away one hand, his other would move back where she didn’t want it.
“Don’t fight me so,” he murmured as he nuzzled her shoulder.
“This isn’t comfortable.” She squirmed to the side. “It’s hurting me.” He pulled her back.
“Relax,” he mumbled against her. “It’s okay.”
No, it isn’t! She didn’t know how long she could take it. Where is Panahasi? Suddenly, she decided. It was too much. She wasn’t going to do this. She had to make it all stop!
“Rumfle mollop a callum,” Horatius slurred, barely above a whisper. And the full weight of him fell against Jean, his hands dropping and his breathing heavy.
“Horatius?” she whispered. She repeated his name a little louder.
He didn’t stir. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed.
She couldn’t budge him. His relaxed body pinned her against the workbench. The sound of heavy rain hammered against the roof.
She struggled for a few minutes, trying to get out from beneath him, but he was too heavy. She was held fast. If she moved too much, the edge of the counter dug into her back like a knife. Finally, she lost patience. She needed Panahasi to come and rescue her. “Panahasi?”
He didn’t come and she could barely tolerate the weight of Horatius. It felt like she might break in half backwards. She tried one more time to get loose.
“Get off me, would you?” she yelled, frustrated and tired of the whole thing. Her fear had transformed into annoyance. She hit at his shoulders with ineffective punches.
The door flew open and a rush of feet came at them. Finally, she thought.
A ferocious roar broke through the noise of the storm. Someone slammed something against Horatius and Jean felt the impact through his body. Stretching to see around the enormous shoulders holding her down, Jean looked past and her eyes landed on Angus in the dim light. His enraged face was frightening in the long shadows from the small candle. His thick yellow hair hung down in dripping locks, drenched with rain. He flicked back his hair with a violent snap of his head. Cursing terribly, he pulled at Horatius’ giant, listless form, which barely moved though his arms flopped limply with each of Angus’ tugs. Finally Horatius came away and dropped onto the floor in a crumpled pile. A knife stuck out from his spine, the hilt shining in the flashes of lightning.
Jean was afraid to speak. Angus glared at her with eyes so terrible, she shrank back. He flicked his wet, heavy hair out of his face and drilled into Jean with his eyes. Several of Angus’ mates charged through the door, the rain coming in with them. Panahasi was standing calmly at the door behind them, completely unperturbed by the storm. He gave her a knowing, satisfied nod.
“I’ll deal with you later!” Angus snarled at her and jabbed a stiff, hard finger into her breast bone, making her wince at the pain of it. “Wait here.” Then to his mates, he yelled, “Tom, Graham, take the mongrel’s legs. Seamus, help me with his arms. Let’s take him to the arch. We’ll draw him up then cut off his head!”
Jean’s hand flew to her mouth, but she kept silent, afraid of what Angus intended for her.
They dragged Horatius out the door, pulling his unconscious body through the mud and deep puddles of rain. Once they were away from the door, Panahasi stepped inside.
“Come with me. Quickly.”
Jean didn’t know what he had planned but she was too petrified to question.
He led her out to the dark yard, past the stables, and around to the back of the buildings along the edge of the cliff. Lightning pulsed and lit up a huge man—another giant like Panahasi and Horatius. Shivers shook her body but not because the rain was turning to sleet.
“This is Akhekh,” Panahasi shouted through the thunder. “He’s going to take you home. Now I must go to MacKay before he takes off Horatius’ head without me.”
“You won’t let Angus kill him?”
“Don’t you worry. You performed beautifully. Now just you think about going home.” He spun around and hastened away, splashing through the puddles, with vigor she’d not seen in him before.
Left alone with the other giant, Jean slowly pivoted toward him, the escalating fear colliding with her many other emotions.
“So,” she said trying to remain steady, but her voice cracked, “you’re taking me back to Balvenie Castle?” She drew the wide hood of her cloak up over her head as the rain pounded her.
“Yes. But there is the price.”
“Panahasi didn’t explain that. I don’t understand.”
“I’m not doing this for nothing.”
She’d barely escaped molestation by Horatius, and Angus may yet assault her. What more could she face? The roar and force of the storm receded to almost nothing in her awareness. “What did Panahasi promise you?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“You must commit your soul to me.”
Akhekh looked completely vexed. “If you’re not in agreement, I will just go. I have better things to do.”
“Nay. Wait!” Jean had already lost her faith. Her belief in God was gone. What did it matter if she made a promise about her soul? It’d be an empty, useless oath. To pretend this oversized man had any impact on the state of her eternal condition was ridiculous. She probably didn’t even have an eternal soul. If it won her passage from the contentious Angus MacKay and took her closer to her home, she would give her word. “Aye, whatever you say.”
Akhekh nodded. “Good. Are you ready?”
“Where are the horses?” Jean asked, hoping there were two so she wouldn’t have to sit near the frightening stranger.
“No need for horses, not where we’re going.”
“But we are going to Balvenie?” she asked, speaking up to be heard and clearly understood. “That was our agreement.”
“Did Panahasi not explain anything about this to you?”
“Not in any detail.”
Akhekh stepped closer. “Step over to me. I tire of this weather. Come here. I won’t eat you.” His voice sent chills up her spine. His long, thick arms snatched her up and she tensed, worried she might have just jumped into a worse fire. He lifted her off her feet, none too gently. “Keep your thoughts empty. We must not draw attention to ourselves.”
Suddenly, Akhekh exploded into a brilliant being of light and the darkness dissolved around them at the same second. The rain was gone and the thunder and lightning ceased. Instead, bright lights flashed past them and Jean’s stomach flopped over inside. She could barely catch her breath.
“What’s happening?” she screeched. “What’s happening?” She must have ingested the poison and it was giving her wild visions. This can’t be real!
“Quiet,” Akhekh snarled. “The Pure will hear you.”
Jean didn’t comprehend. She just wanted to know where the world had gone and how they were moving as they were and how he had changed into something completely different before her very eyes. She was frightened out of her mind. Unable to stop herself, she desperately gripped handfuls of Akhekh’s flowing gown in her fists, though the garment of light seemed vaporous like it wasn’t made of any woven substance she knew. She felt like she was slipping from his grasp, a terrible sensation, as though she were falling through the sky.
Illuminated space continued to flash by. Then suddenly they stopped and before them hovered what she could only describe as a ferocious, magnificent angel. He was even bigger than Akhekh, with huge wings spread wide, shaking and sparkling with radiance that shone out from the wings themselves. The angel held a long spiked weapon, one Jean had never seen before, and it was sizzling like it was charged with lightning. His face was steel, set with horrid fury.
“Akhekh, where are you taking my ward?” His voice reverberated like thunder, only louder.
Akhekh pulled her in closer. “I’m just returning her home. Don’t worry. No one will care. It’s only a tiny adjustment to events.”
“You’ve brought her out of the Chronos Band into the restricted realm for humans. I cannot allow this.”
“Jabamiah, I know what you did, how you failed to guard her. I am just repairing your own deficiency. You let her entire family be wiped out. Just let me by and I’ll deposit her back to the time right before Zakun bested you. You cannot even follow me where we are going. You were diminished from that sector.”
The angel glared at him with furious eyes. While the two glowing beings held their ground, Jean tried to make sense of what was happening. Could Panahasi have actually told her the truth? Could she really return to a time before the attack? Was it possible that events could be backed up and relived?
“I cannot let you interfere so. You may in fact not pass.” Jabamiah raised his weapon.
Akhekh suddenly held a flaming sword.
“Return her to her own time in the Band!”
“You failed her.” Akhekh slammed his sword against the angel’s weapon. Fire balls shot forth.
Jabamiah backed up. He looked right at Jean. “What did you pledge in return for this deed?”
She hesitated to answer, now wondering what she had done. Clearly there was more to reality than she’d ever considered. Was it possible she’d just sold her soul to a devil?
“I…I…,” she was afraid to say it.
Akhekh cut in. “Ignore him, Jean. You’ll see your family again. That’s what matters now.”
“It is not all that mat—”
Jabamiah’s voice cut off and he disappeared from sight.
Jean’s head jerked back as everything around her jolted away and the walls of light began again to speed past. Akhekh’s massive arms were around her but it felt like she would fly out of his grasp into the open space flashing past them. She heard Jabamiah’s faint voice shouting at Akhekh to stop. Akhekh taunted him back, telling him to go preach at someone else.
Balls of fire flew past them. One of them hit Akhekh in the back and Jean felt the jolt of the impact. She also felt Akhekh shrink to a smaller size around her. He yelled words that Jean didn’t know, and the angel Jabamiah shouted back in the unknown language, but his voice was fading behind them. Their direction plummeted. She was going to vomit. Forces on Jean’s head and body were like none she’d ever experienced.
A new voice came with unfathomable power. It wasn’t just in front of them but completely encompassing them. It was even inside of her.
“Jabamiah may not be able to follow you into the sector for now, but I certainly can!”
“Mebahel,” Akhekh growled under his breath.
All at once, they dove and Jean screamed. The change in direction made her certain that her stomach was outside of her body. She could hardly breathe. Then all the white light was sucked away and blue sky and rolling hills appeared around her. Her mind couldn’t fathom what was happening.
Akhekh tossed her out of his arms, like she was fouling his hands. She spilled out onto the grass and fell to her hands and knees.
“I do not intend to battle with Mebahel or any other Pure over you. You are on your own. We didn’t get as far down the Chronos Band as you’d like, but there is no time. Remember our terms. Now I must go!”
He imploded, shrinking to a small black spot, and he disappeared from her sight.
Dazed, Jean looked around. She was just outside the keep of Balvenie Castle. Men were sprinting across the bailey, abandoning tent poles that were toppling to the ground behind them. The canopies were billowing down to the ground over the fallen poles as she watched. Her father came running into the bailey with his sword drawn, just like before, moments before the Gunns attacked. She had arrived too late. The battle was at hand. She watched as her father shoved her other self toward the chapel. As that Jean bolted toward the chapel door, she became transparent, changing into vapor as this Jean was becoming more real. At the chapel entrance, as that Jean pushed on the door to go in, she disappeared completely.
Her father ran toward the lowered drawbridge and saw her by the keep door. His eyes flew wide.
“Jean!” he screamed. “I told you— What are you doing over here?”
Jean ran to him and threw her arms around his waist. “Da, Da!” To see him alive again!
“Jean Bean,” he cried out. “It isn’t safe here. I sent you to the chapel.”
“It will do no good,” Jean sobbed. “Da, I love you.”
“Get to safety. Leave us to raise the drawbridge!”
Their attempt would be futile all over again. Everyone would die, just like before. Jean knew it was seconds before the attackers arrived. She had to do something!
“You must forget the drawbridge,” Jean cried. “There’s no time. You must brace for attack. I will lock everyone else inside the keep. We’ll hide in the cellar!”
Their eyes locked for one poignant moment. Then she quickly kissed his cheek and dashed from his arms.
She ran through the keep entrance and threw the door closed. She could only hope her father would do as she’d said.
“Help me secure the portal!” she yelled at John who was about to leave by that door. “Stay inside and help me guard everyone within!”
After they dropped three crossbeams into their braces, they ran into the Great Hall.
“Everyone, quickly! Help block all the doors. Then get to the cellar. The Gunns are coming and they mean to kidnap Janet!”
Janet screamed. Their mother cried, “Oh, God above, protect us!”
Jean corralled all the servants, the children, and her family below stairs while the men in the hall fortified the side doors. By having most everyone safely inside, she could only hope it would be enough to allow her father and his men to concentrate on defending the castle.
After John and Robert came scrambling down the steps into the lower cellar tunnels, they set the locks on the door and slammed a massive beam into the brackets on either side of the doorway. John and Robert unsheathed their weapons and faced the door. Everyone else pressed back against the far wall among the barrels of onions and hanging herbs. No one spoke. Not even the children.
They waited so long, the air became stuffy with everyone’s breath.
A distant crack of splintering wood was followed by several crashes above them, muffled through the ceiling. The fighting had come into the keep. The metallic clang of swords rang out.
Footsteps pounded across the ceiling. The wooden beams creaked. More crashing and yelling. Scuffling and banging. And then, sudden silence.
Everyone stood unmoving, mute, afraid of giving away their hiding place.
Time passed and the quiet above them stretched long past tolerance. Jean was certain everyone out in the yard had to be dead. No one would be left to come rescue them.
“Should I go out and check?” John whispered after what seemed like an eternity.
“Let’s wait a wee bit longer,” Robert finally answered in a restrained voice. He held his knife higher toward the door.
Annis made a low, thin keening noise, drawing it out long enough that Jean wanted to throw her hand over Annis’ mouth. Everyone began to make more noise, shuffling for comfort. Some of the older women—including Jean’s mother—sat down on the floor right where they stood. Janet, with wide frightened eyes, sank to the floor next to their mother and held their mother’s hand in her own against her breast. An infant began to fuss and Annis—somehow able to shift moods suddenly—snapped in a harsh, stifled whisper at the bairn’s mother, who quickly put him to breast to quiet him.
The door rattled and many in the group sucked in fast, raspy breaths. A tiny child began to weep, her cries so soft they were barely audible, but the sound reflected everyone’s deep terror. John and Robert became fully alert again and stood rigidly facing the door, their sword and knife held ready. Jean braced to relive the loss of everyone she loved all over again. And to perhaps face her own death this time.
A muffled voice came through the thick heavy oaken door. Jean couldn’t make out if it was friend or foe.
A fist pounded several times, and then a sharper hammering, like the hilt of a dagger. The muffled voice suddenly grew clearer, as it came through the keyhole.
“All is well,” the voice said. “You are safe. We’ve driven them away.”
Robert and John looked at each other. It could be a trick.
“The Gunns could have found these passageways,” John whispered.
“How can we know?” Robert squeaked back.
Jean ran forward and squatted down to speak into the keyhole. “Da? Is that is you? Tell me what nickname you use for me?”
“Pet, it’s Jean Bean to be sure. Truly, it is safe to come out.”
Jean nodded to the men and they lifted away the bar. Staying behind the door, Jean slowly pulled it open while the men prepared to fight, just in case her father was held against his will.
From behind the door she saw them relax.
“Are you okay?” Robert asked.
Jean stepped out to find her father, Boyd, and three other men in the doorway.
“Mostly,” her father said. “Alick is injured, but no one else.”
Annis let out a terrible wail and pushed through the crowd to get out the door.
“Don’t fash overmuch,” her father called up the steps after Annis. “It doesn’t seem too serious.”
Annis disappeared as if he’d said nothing.
“What happened?” Jean asked. “How did you avoid worse happening?”
“It was you, Jean Bean. When you said to leave the drawbridge, it suddenly made sense to me that we had no time. We’d waste effort on something that we couldn’t do. They were coming on too fast. So we established our defense just inside the entrance and met them straight on before they could overwhelm us. It took them by surprise that we would head them off so fully. A group of them broke through and crashed in the side door, but we caught up to them before long. Three Gunns were struck down at the gate, and one in the yard, but the rest got away—though with plenty of wounds to plague them.”
Jean fell into her father’s arms. The strength of his embrace was comfort beyond her comprehension and drove away the pain she’d carried for so long.
“I can’t believe it’s true,” Jean said.
Jean’s mother and sister joined her next to her father and he enfolded all three of them into his strong arms.
“There, there. We’re all fine now. Don’t you fash. Nothing too awful happened. Nothing we couldn’t handle. Let’s get above stairs now. We have a wedding to prepare for. We’re not going to let those vile Gunns take this time of happiness from us.”
Jean truly smiled for the first time in weeks.
Jean knelt near the chancel in the family chapel next to the Eucharist table. The table beside her was intact, the splintered apron in one piece, of course with no sign of ever having been destroyed, because now it had not been. Just like everything else in the small church. The thick velvet drape hung around the edge of the ornately carved table in flowing waves, no singed edges or ragged tears. The old wooden candlesticks were positioned on either side of the table with five beeswax candles on each of the slanted arms. Each candle stood erect, straight in its sconce, burning steadily and bright. The benches in the nave were lined up in even rows, intact and unburned. Jean could barely believe it was real. Her other experience had been seared into her brain, so much more real than just a vaporous, tormenting nightmare. Visions of the fiend who had searched for her beneath the table would still freeze her breath in her throat, but she knew she was safe from him. He’d been one of the brutes her father had struck down dead and whose body was left behind by his cowardly clansmen.
Parson Paterson had been inside the chapel when the raid came, just as before. But the second time, he had remained unaware of the battle outside until long after it was over. None of the Gunns had burst in on the unsuspecting parson. No one had slaughtered him in cold blood.
Now as Jean bowed to pray, she was alone. The unharmed parson was in the keep breaking his fast with the rest of the household, preparing for her sister’s upcoming wedding. But Jean had skipped the meal. She wanted to be alone to ponder what had happened to her. Her mind was reeling.
In the midst of all her churning feelings, she had to face what she’d done to win her family back. Most certainly there would be a reckoning for her. She’d sold her soul. Now she knew the truth. She truly did have a soul, and there indeed was a supernatural world that existed. She’d seen it. She’d been there.
Unable to hold the burden and weight of all she’d done, of the soul she’d squandered with so little thought—though she didn’t know that she wouldn’t do it again, which gave her no small pang of guilt—she began to finally cry. In the midst of her quiet weeping, she begged for forgiveness for making the deal with a devil, or whatever that being had been. Beyond a doubt he was evil. If she’d bothered to consider it before, it would have been obvious. But she’d put her desires before all else—and in the process she’d lost her eternal hope.
“Child,” Parson Paterson said.
Jean looked up, but the parson wasn’t there. A huge being, vaporous and brilliant, hovered above the altar. She gasped. It was the angel who had tried to stop Akhekh.
“You are distraught,” the angel said.
“Who—what are you?” Jean asked.
“I am your Guardian. I battle to keep you safe, not only physically but spiritually as well. But your choices, as well as the choices of others, play a part in your fate too. You have had quite a time of it lately. You’ve experienced something humans don’t usually see. The veil was lifted for a time and you saw in.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Jean exclaimed. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I have damned myself for eternity.”
“No,” the angel said. “The trickery of the evil one is to steal your hope. It was a false deal he made with you. You always have a choice.”
“You mean I don’t have to give away my soul? Even though I got all I’d hoped for?”
The angel chuckled. It was soft and kind, in no way mocking. “No child. You are free to choose the path of life. I will guard you as time continues, but try to avoid what trouble you can. As you have learned, difficult things in life occur. And the chance to redo events is a rare thing. Make the most of this second chance. I will always be only a prayer away.”
The vision dissolved and Jean was left alone in the empty church.
Stunned, elated, overwhelmed, she wiped her face dry and headed for the keep. When she walked out of the church door, light on her feet with new hope, Alick came around a corner. He had on a sling holding one arm to his chest. It pained him to move it and it needed to stay still while it healed. The stab wound was glancing enough that his mother thought he’d not lose the use of his arm.
“Hello,” he said. “I…I…I noticed you were not at table. I worried about you. The fighting yesterday seemed especially har…hard on you.”
“Aye,” Jean said. “It has been overwhelming.” She smiled at him, thinking it sweet that he’d thought of her.
“Wuh…would I be too bold to think mayhap you worried that I was hurt? Mayhap you feared me dead?”
Jean laughed freely, merrily. Before, such an audacious statement from Alick would have flared her anger at him. But now, it endeared him to her.
“Nay, not too bold. ’Tis true. I worried for your safety. I am glad you are okay. Truly.”
He let out a long breath, like he’d been afraid about her answer.
“Are…are you ready to join the march back here to the chapel? They are gathering in the keep to come over.”
“Then I best go back, shouldn’t I? Janet wouldn’t forgive me if I drew attention away from her by walking in late and holding up her processional. I’m supposed to be a part of her retinue.”
Walking across the bailey toward the keep, they ducked beneath the tents that were billowing gently in the wind, each canopy’s corners secured to tall tent poles solidly sunk into ground and staked in place, once the battle was finished. The tables and benches were arranged in rows leading up to the stage where the musicians would play pipes, flutes, and drum for the dancers. Flower wreaths hung on each of the tent poles with ribbons of different colors draped between each pole. After Janet and her betrothed exchanged vows in the chapel, everyone would pour into the yard and begin celebrating with a feast and dancing until the moon was high.
“Wuh…would you pro…promise to dance with me?” He blushed, turning redder with every word. His freckles popped out darker than ever. Jean was surprised when she realized that she thought he was adorable. Her heart thumped a little harder behind her breastbone.
“Aye. We’ll dance. And we’ll see what kind of ideas our mothers come up with once they see us together.” Jean reached over and took hold of Alick’s hand while they walked. She turned her gaze straight ahead but could see with her side vision that he had turned his freckled face toward her and looked down at her hand holding his. And his face broke into the widest grin she’d ever seen him have.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author Cheri Gillard has been a freelance writer and editor for twenty-five years, working for several publishing houses and companies writing or editing projects, books, magazines, and curricula. She earned the coveted IndieB.R.A.G Medallion for Chloe’s Guardian, Book One of the Nephilim Redemption series, as well as winning several other awards for her fiction over her writing career. Before writing, she was an obstetric and pediatric registered nurse, but she hung up her nurse’s cap when she gave birth to quadruplets. She is also a violinist, and she blogs about life raising quadruplets and her own childhood growing up with her unique perspectives of the world. She lives with her family in Colorado.
Jean Dixson, a heartbroken but resilient Scottish lass, survives horrific tragedy but loses everyone dear to her. While she struggles to cope after a violent assault, imperious men assert they have the authority to decide her fate at the same time that scheming demons fight for the right to claim her soul. With the loss of faith and a hardened heart, she is cast into realms she no longer believes exist. Follow her as she encounters the Celestials who introduce her to the Unseen Realm, and discover how her choices impact not only her, but the many people—especially Chloe—who will come after her in the continuing saga. "The Raid of Balvenie and the Maiden Who Survived" is the prequel to the adventures of Chloe and her friends in the Nephilim Redemption Series. This “story before the story” now brings new insight and understanding to the events which lead up to the opening scenes of “Chloe’s Guardian.” For established fans, characters that you’ve come to know in the trilogy appear with new clarity, with secrets revealed that have only been hinted at before. With this thrilling release, learn the untold story of what brings about that fateful night in “Chloe's Guardian” at Dunnottar Castle when the murderous and demon-possessed MacKay holds Horatius’ fate by the blade of his deadly sword. For those readers new to the series, you’ll meet both delightful and frightful players who you’ll see again in the adventures of Chloe, providing you with a head start on the exciting three-book series.