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By Hannah Howell Jackie Kessler Richelle Mead Lynsay Sands
Copyright © 2008 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Sophie Hay stumbled slightly as another fierce sneeze shook her small frame. A linen rag was shoved into her hand, and she blew her nose, then wiped her streaming eyes with her sleeves. She smiled at her maid, Nella, who watched her with concern. Considering how long she had been scrambling through this ancient part of her Aunt Claire's house, Sophie suspected she looked worthy of Nella's concern.
"I dinnae ken what ye think ye will find here," Nella said. "Old Steven said her ladyship ne'er came in here; thought it haunted, and he thinks it may not be safe now."
"'Tis sturdy, Nella." Sophie patted the stones framing the fireplace. "Verra sturdy. The rest of the house will fall ere this part does. The fact that that stone was loose," she pointed to the one she had pried away from the wall, releasing the cloud of dust that had started her sneezing, "was what told me that something might be hidden here."
"And ye dinnae think this place be haunted?"
Sophie inwardly grimaced, knowing she would have to answer with some very carefully chosen words or Nella would start running and probably not stop until she reached Berwick. "Nay. I sense no spirits in this room." She would not tell Nella about all the others wandering in the house. "All I sense is unhappiness. Grief and a little fear. It was strong here by the fireplace, which is why I was searching here."
"Fear?" Nella's dark eyes grew wide as she watched Sophie reach toward the hole in the wall. "I dinnae think ye ought to do that. Fear and grief arenae good. God kens what ye might find in there."
"I am certainly nay sticking my hand in there with any eagerness, Nella, but," she sighed, "I also feel I must." She ignored Nella's muttered prayers, took a deep breath to steady herself, and reached in. "Ah, there is something hidden here."
Sophie grasped a cold metal handle on the end of what felt like a small chest. She tugged and felt it inch toward her a little. Whoever had put it into this hole had had to work very hard, for it was a tight fit. Inch by inch it came, until Sophie braced herself against the wall and yanked with all her might. The little chest came out so quickly, she stumbled backward and was only saved from falling by Nella's quick, bracing catch.
As she set the chest on a small table, Sophie noticed her maid edge closer, her curiosity obviously stronger than her fear. Sophie unfolded the thick oiled leather wrapped around the bulk of the chest, then used a corner of her apron to brush aside the dust and stone grit. It was a beautiful chest of heavy wood, ornately carved with runes and a few Latin words. The hinges, handles, and clasp were of hammered gold, but there was no lock. She rubbed her hands together as she prepared herself to open it.
"What are all those marks upon it?" asked Nella.
"Runes. Let me think. Ah, they are signs for protection, for hope, for forgiveness, for love. All good things. The words say: Within lies the truth, and, if it pleases God, the salvation of two peoples. How odd." She stroked the top of the chest. "This is verra old. It must have just missed being discovered when the fireplace was added to the house. I wouldnae be surprised if this belonged to the matriarch of our line or one of her kinswomen."
"The witch?" Nella took a small step back. "A curse?"
"I doubt it when such markings cover the chest." She slowly opened the lid and frowned slightly. "More oiled leather for wrapping. Whoever hid this wanted it to last a verra long time." She took out the longest of the items and carefully unwrapped it. "A scroll." She gently unrolled the parchment and found another small one tucked inside. When she touched the erratic writing upon the smaller parchment, she shivered. "Blood. 'Tis written in blood."
"Oh, my lady, put it back. Quickly!" When Sophie simply pressed her hand upon the smaller parchment and closed her eyes, Nella edged nearer again. "What do ye see?"
"Morvyn. That is the name of the one who wrote this. Morvyn, sister to Rona."
"Aye. No ink," she muttered. "That is why this is written in blood. Morvyn had naught else to write with and she was desperate to record this exactly as it was said." Sophie opened herself up to the wealth of feeling and knowledge trapped within the parchment. "She tried to stop it. So desperate, so afraid for us all. She prays," Sophie whispered. "She prays and prays and prays, every night until she dies, sad and so verra alone." She quickly removed her hand and took several deep breaths to steady herself.
"Oh, m'lady, this is no treasure, is it?"
"It may be. Beneath that despair was hope. That would explain the words carved upon the chest."
"Can ye read the writings?"
"Aye, though I dinnae want to."
"I must. That chest carries the words 'truth' and 'salvation,' Nella. Mayhap the truth as to why all the women of my line die as poor Morvyn died-sad and so verra alone. I willnae read it aloud." Sophie's eyes widened and she felt chilled as she read the words. "I cannae believe Morvyn wrote this. She feared these words." Sophie turned her attention to the larger scroll. "Oh, dear."
"What is it?"
"I fear Rona deserves her ill fame. She loved Ciar MacCordy, The MacCordy of Nochdaidh. They were lovers, but he left her to marry another, a woman with land and wealth. He also left her with child."
"As too oft happens, the rutting bastards," muttered Nella.
"True. Rona was hurt and her pain twisted into a vindictive fury. One night she cursed The MacCordy and all the future MacCordy lairds. Morvyn tried to stop it, but failed. Her fear was that the Galts would pay dearly alongside The MacCordy, if in a different way. She writes out the curse again and, trust me, Nella, 'tis a bad one. She expresses the hope that some descendant will find this and have the courage and skill to undo what Rona did. Ah, me, poor Morvyn tried her whole life to do just that, with prayer and with healing spells. She wrote once right after the curse was made, and again when she was verra old. She leaves her book of cures and spells as well as her stones. The use of the stones is explained in the book.
"Morvyn says she thinks she has discovered the sting in the tail of Rona's curse. A Galt woman of their line will know love only to lose it, to watch it die or slip through her grasp. She will gain land and wealth, but such things will ne'er heal her heart or warm her in the night and she will face her death still unloved, still alone." Sophie wiped tears from her cheeks with the corner of her apron. "And she was right, Nella. She was so verra right."
"Nay, nay. Your ancestors just chose wrong, 'tis all."
"For over four hundred years? This is dated. It was written in the year 1000. The verra first day." Sophie muttered a curse. "That fool Rona sent out a curse on the eve of a new year, a new century. It was probably a night made to strengthen any magic brewed and she stirred up an evil, vindictive sort."
Nella wrung her hands together. "There isnae any of that evil in this house, is there?"
Sophie smiled at her maid. "Nay. I sense that magic has been stirred in here, but nay the black sort."
"Then from where comes the fear and sadness?"
"Heartache, Nella. Lost love. Loneliness." Sophie cautiously picked up the two small bags inside the chest and gasped. "Oh my, oh my."
"M'lady, what is it?"
"Morvyn's stones." She gently placed one bag back inside the chest on top of what she now knew was Morvyn's book of cures and spells. "Those are her healing stones. These," she clasped the small bag she held between her hands, "are her blessing stones."
Nella stepped closer and shyly touched the bag. "Ye can feel that, can ye?"
"Morvyn had magic, Nella, good, loving, gentle magic." She put everything back inside the chest. "How verra sad that such a woman suffered heartache and died unloved because of her own sister's actions." She closed the chest and started out of the room.
"Where are ye taking it?" asked Nella as she hurried to follow Sophie.
"To my room where, after a nice hot bath and a hearty meal, I mean to read Morvyn's wee book." She ignored Nella's mutterings, which seemed to consist of warnings about leaving certain things buried in walls, not stirring up trouble, and several references to the devil and his minions. "I but seek the truth, Nella. The truth and salvation."
It was late before Sophie had an opportunity to more closely examine her find. The house, lands, and fortune her Aunt Claire had bequeathed her were welcome, but carried a lot of responsibility. Aunt Claire had been ill during her last years, mostly in spirit and mind, and there was a lot that had been neglected. Although wearied by all the demands for her attention during the day, Sophie finally sat on a thick sheepskin rug before the fire, sipped at a tankard of hot, spiced cider, and looked over what her ancestor had left behind.
A brief examination of the book revealed many useful things, from intricate cures to simple balms. Sophie only briefly glimpsed the spells, few and benign, before turning to the explanation of the stones. She considered them a wondrous gift, having long believed in the power of stones, which were as old as the world itself. Sentinels and possessors of the secrets and events of the past, Sophie was sure all manner of wonders and truths could be uncovered if one understood the magic and use of them.
Still sipping at her drink, Sophie next turned her attention to the scrolls. She read both Morvyn's letter and the curse several times before replacing them in the box. The truth was certainly there, but Sophie was not sure she could see the salvation promised. Nothing in Morvyn's writings or the words of Rona's curse seemed to indicate a way in which to end the despair suffered by so many Galt women.
Staring into the fire, she grimaced, for she could feel the spirits of those who had gone before, including poor old Aunt Claire. Generation after generation of Galt women, who briefly savored the sweet taste of love only to have it all go sour, had returned to this house to die or spent their whole sad lives here. Each one had spent far too many years wondering why love had eluded them, why they had held it for so short a time only to see it trickle out of their grasp like fine sand. Although she had only been at Werstane for a fortnight, several times she had felt the despair of all who had gone before, felt it weigh so heavily upon her that she had come close to weeping. If Aunt Claire had felt it too, had spent her whole life feeling it, it was no wonder she had become a little odd.
And now that she understood the curse Rona had set upon the MacCordys, understood the "sting in its tail," as Morvyn called it, Sophie knew her fate was to be the same as Aunt Claire's, as that of all the lonely, heartbroken spirits still trapped within Werstane. Her own mother had suffered the sting of their ancestor's malice, but had let that despair conquer her, hurling herself into the sea rather than spend one more day in suffering. As Sophie faced her twentieth birthday, she was surprised she had not yet suffered the same fate, but love had not yet touched her. Most people considered her a spinster, an object of pity, but she was beginning to think she was very lucky indeed.
Sophie finished her drink, stood up, and set the tankard on the mantel. She would not join the long line of heartbroken Galt women. If it took her the rest of her life, she would end the torment her vindictive ancestor had inflicted upon so many innocent people. If it was God's wish that the Galt women should suffer for Rona's crime, surely four hundred and thirty-five years of misery was penance enough. Perhaps He wanted a Galt woman to put right what a Galt woman had made so wrong. It was her duty to try. And, she mused, as she crawled into bed, there was only one proper place to start-Nochdaidh.
"Nella isnae going to like this plan," she murmured and almost smiled.
"I dinnae like this, m'lady. Not at all."
Sophie glanced at her maid riding the stout pony at her side. Nella had not ceased bemoaning the plans Sophie had made in the entire sennight since she had made them. It had been expected, but Sophie was weary of it. Nella's fears fed her own. What she needed was confidence and support. Nella was loyal, but Sophie wished she was also brave, perhaps even a little encouraging.
"Nella, do ye wish me to die alone, sad, and heartbroken?" Sophie asked.
"Then hush. Unless Rona's curse is broken, I will suffer the fate of all the Galt women of her bloodline. I will become just another one of the sorrowful, despairing spirits roaming the halls of Werstane."
Nella gasped, then gave Sophie a brief look of accusation. "Ye said there werenae any spirits at Werstane."
"Actually, I said there werenae any spirits in the room we were in when ye asked about them." She grinned when Nella snorted softly in disgust, but quickly grew serious again. "'Twill be all right, Nella."
"Oh? The woman in the village said the laird is a monster, a beast who drinks blood and devours bairns."
"If he devours bairns, he obviously has a verra small appetite, for the village was swarming with them. And that village looked far too prosperous for one said to be ruled by some beast." She looked around her, noticing how stark the land had grown, then frowned at the looming castle of dark stone before her. "That place does look a wee bit chilling, however. The boundary between light and dark is astonishingly clear."
"Do ye feel anything, m'lady? Evil or danger?" Nella asked in an unsteady whisper.
"I feel despair," Sophie replied in an equally quiet voice. "'Tis so thick, 'tis nearly smothering."
"Oh, dear. That isnae good for ye, m'lady. Nay good at all."
Sophie dismounted but yards from the huge, ominous gates of Nochdaidh and placed her hand upon the cold, rocky ground. "Rona's venom has sunk deep into this land."
"The verra ground is cursed? Will it nay reach out to infect us as weel?"
"Not ye, Nella. And what poison is here is for The MacCordy, nay ye and nay me."
Nella dismounted, moved to stand at Sophie's side, and clasped her hand. "Let us leave this cursed place, m'lady. Ye feel too much. What lurks here, in the verra air and the earth, could hurt ye."
"I am hurt already, Nella, and I face e'en more hurt. Long, lonely years of pain, the sort of pain that drove my mother to court hell's fires by taking her own life. The MacCordys also suffer. The pain should have been Rona's alone, and, mayhap, her lover's. Yet she inflicted it upon countless innocents. Aunt Claire did no wrong. My mother did no wrong. The mon behind those shadowed walls did no wrong. One woman's anger has tainted all of us. How can I ignore that? How can I but walk away? I am of Rona's blood and I must do all I can to undo this wrong. If nay for myself, then for the MacCordys, for my own child if I am blessed with one."
"So, if ye can break this curse, ye will love and be loved and have bairns?"
"Aye, that is how I understand it."
Nella took a deep breath, threw back her thin shoulders, and nodded firmly. "Then we must go on. Ye have a right to such happiness. And I can find it within me to be brave. I have protection."
Thinking of all the talismans, rune stones, and other such things Nella was weighted down with, Sophie suspected her maid was the most protected woman in all of Scotland. "Loyal Nella, I welcome your companionship. I shall be in sore need of it, I think." Sophie took the reins of her pony in her hand and started to walk toward the gates of Nochdaidh.
"'Tis as if the verra sun fears to shine upon such a cursed place," Nella whispered.
"Aye. Let us pray that God in His mercy will show me the way to dispel those shadows."
Excerpted from Eternal Lover by Hannah Howell Jackie Kessler Richelle Mead Lynsay Sands Copyright © 2008 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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