Chapter OneEarly May 1541, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
A bright moon broke through fleeting clouds, lighting the Highland moors and casting five men into dark shadows. Five men waiting behind a steep crag far above the great Dee river. The river was a silver thread winding its way through the wide valley between the Cairngorm mountains and towering Lochnagar.
A burn turbulent with melted winter snow passed below, joining the Dee. This thick stream traversed Glen More, where MacKinnion crofts dotted what little fertile land there was.
All was quiet in the crofts. All was quiet in the glen. The five men heard only the melodic sound of water far below and their own ragged breathing. They crouched behind the crag, cold and wet from their river crossing.
They were waiting for the moon to reach its zenith, when it would cast no shadow. Then the tallest of them would set them on their task -- a task conceived out of bitterness. His clansmen were as nervous as he was.
"The moon is high, Sir William."
William stiffened. "So it is," he said, and began to pass out the green-gold-and-gray-striped plaids he had ordered made for that night. "Let it be done then, and done right. The cry will be the Clan Fergusson cry, no' our own. And dinna kill all, or there'll be no one left to say whose cry they heard."
The five men moved away from their hiding place and gathered their horses. Swords were drawn and torches lit. And in a moment, a bloodcurdling war cry split the still night. Seven crofts were in their pathway, but the assailants expected to attack only three, for MacKinnion crofters were skilled warriors as well as farmers, and the fewattackers had only surprise on their side.
The family in the first croft were barely awake before their small hut was put to the torch. Their home was quickly consumed. Their livestock was butchered, but the crofter and his family were saved the sword. There was no blessing in that, for imprisoned in their inferno, their deaths were more agonizing.
A newly married couple lived in the second hut, the wife fifteen years old. She woke to the war cry with terror, terror that doubled when she saw her husband's anguished face. He forced her to hide beneath their box bed, and then he went out to meet the attack. She never knew what happened to him. Smoke gathered in the thatched hut, suffocating her. It was too late to wish she had not defied her brother and married her beloved. It was too late for anything.
The third croft faired a little better, though not by much. It was a larger farm. Old Ian lived there with his three grown sons, a daughter-in-law and grandson, and a servant. Fortunately, Ian was a bad sleeper and was awake to see the newlyweds' croft set on fire. He called his three sons to arms and sent his grandson to warn their closest neighbors. Simon was then to go to their laird.
The attackers met resistance at Ian's croft, four strong fighters. Ian could still wield a mean cudgel, and he held out for precious time. One of Ian's sons was dead, another wounded, and old Ian struck down before anyone heard the war cry of the MacKinnions. At that sound, the attackers fled.
It was an angry young laird who viewed the devastating scene in those dark hours before dawn. James MacKinnion halted his huge steed just as his cousin and friend Black Gawain ran into the newlyweds' hut, a small cottage built only months before to welcome the bride. Only the low stone walls and a little of the roof remained of a home so lately filled with laughter and teasing.
For Black Gawain's sake, Jamie hoped the hut would be empty, but it was a slim hope and he knew it. He stared at the body of the young crofter, lying just outside the blackened door, the head half severed.
These clansmen of his, on the borders of his land, looked to Jamie for protection. It was beside the point that his castle was far away, up in the hills, and he could not have reached these people in time. Whoever had done this simply did not fear The MacKinnion's wrath. Well, they would! By God, they would!
Black Gawain stumbled out of the blackened debris, choking from the smoke. He threw Jamie a look of relief, but Jamie was not convinced.
"'Are you sure, Black Gawain?" he asked solemnly.
"She's not there."
"But are you sure, Gawain?" Jamie persisted. "I'll not be wasting time searching the hills. The lass would surely have come forward 'afore now if -- "
"'Curse you, Jamie!" Gawain exploded, but the hard look in his laird's eyes made him call to his own men and give the anguished order to search the hut, thoroughly this time, leaving no board unturned.
Three men went inside. All too soon they returned, carrying the body of a young girl.
"She was under the bed," a fellow offered lamely. Gawain took his sister and laid her gently on the ground, leaning over her.
Jamie tightened his grip on his reins. "At least she's no' burned, Gawain," he offered quietly, there being nothing else he could offer. "She suffered little pain."
Black Gawain did not look up. "No' burned, but dead nonetheless," he sobbed. "God, she shouldna have been here! I told her no' to marry that bastard. She shouldna have been here!"
There was nothing Jamie could say, nothing he could do. Except make those who had caused this horror pay for it.
Jamie rode on with the dozen men he had brought with him from Castle Kinnion. They saw what had happened to the first croft. The third croft in the line of damage was untouched, but two of its men were dead, old Ian and his youngest son. Many animals...