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By Amanda Scott
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2004 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNear the eastern coast of Isla, a fortnight
Dense fog blanketed the sea, flattening the waves and creating a world of eerie silence where water, land, and sky merged into impenetrable grayness. That fog was stealing the last hours of Ian Burk's life.
Each passing minute drew the hangman's noose nearer, but without wind, the slender royal galley bearing his hopeful rescuer could only drift with the tide. Its great square sail was useless and its eighteen oarsmen, unable to judge their exact location or course, had long since stopped rowing. They and their three passengers sat in silence as thick and heavy as the fog-muffled surroundings, listening intently.
Seventeen-year-old Lady Mairi of Isla pulled her hooded, fur-lined crimson cloak more snugly around her, stifling impatience. Even her father, the most powerful man in the Isles if not in all Scotland, could not successfully order fog to dissipate.
Beside her, her woman Meg Raith muttered, "'Tis cruel o' the fog t' blind us after the stars and wind we had when we left Dunyvaig. In troth, one canna help but wonder now what lies beneath us." Her voice shook on the words.
"No sea monster stalks these waters," Mairi said firmly.
"None would dare," Meg agreed as if no thought of monsters gliding through the dark depths below had ever entered her head. Less resolutely, she added, "Be ye certain, mistress?"
"Aye, and in any event, the sun is up or soon will be, because everything around us was black a short while ago," Mairi said, pushing a damp, dark curl back under the shelter of her hood. "Moreover, Meg, it is the very nature of fog to creep up on unsuspecting travelers. This one would not seem nearly so eerie had it not swallowed us in the darkness before we realized it was so near."
"Mayhap ye be right, mistress, but 'tis unsettling all the same."
Mairi agreed. Highland galleys usually moved swiftly, especially when wind and tide were favorable, and she loved the sea. The journey from her father's castle Dunyvaig, on the southeastern coast of Isla, to his administrative center on Loch Finlaggan in the north was nearly always a safe one and-at just over twenty miles-relatively short. But even the longest journeys on the water were seldom boring, because the scenery changed constantly and playful otters or seals often accompanied the galleys, amusing passengers with their antics.
She had rarely made any journey on a moonless night, however, with only stars to guide her helmsman, and now, thanks to the fog, the trip had taken hours longer than usual. And hours, for Ian, were precious.
Just then, the helmsman blew two notes on his ram's horn, as he did at ten-minute intervals, both to give warning of their presence to anyone else daft enough to be on the water in such murk and to demand a response from the lookout at Claig Castle when they drifted near enough. The massive fort on the Heather Isle guarded the south entrance to the Sound of Isla, a waterway of great strategic value to Mairi's father, MacDonald, Lord of the Isles and King of the Hebrides.
She turned her attention to the galley's stern, where her fair-bearded half brother lounged on a pile of leather skins beside the helmsman, looking grimly annoyed through the thick mist that billowed about him.
Knowing her voice would carry easily in the silence, she said quietly, "How much farther do you reckon it is, Ranald?"
His expression softened as he shifted his gaze to her. Like all three of her elder half brothers, twenty-one-year-old Ranald was a large, broad-shouldered, handsome man who bore the natural air of authority that sat easily on each of them. A little smile touched his lips as he said, "Near, lass, but not so near that I can promise ye'll be warming your toes by a fire in less than an hour or two."
"The water seems so still," she said. "I can scarcely tell if it is the fog or the boat that moves. Has the tide begun its turn?"
"Nay," he said. "It still carries us northward, and I warrant we'll reach the Sound's entrance soon. Doubtless the men at Claig hear our horn already, but fog distorts noises on the water, and they'll want to be certain of us afore they answer."
She nodded. Like anyone who had grown up with the sea as a constant companion, she understood its moods and movements well enough to know she would feel a distinct difference when they met the swifter flow of the tide through the narrow Sound. As for the helmsman's horn, not only was it the duty of the men at Claig Castle to respond to it but also to collect tribute from those permitted by the Lord of the Isles, rather than by birthright, to take the shorter passage through the Sound. The Claig watchmen would therefore be paying close heed.
But time passed so quickly that minutes now seemed like heartbeats.
Her thoughts returned thus abruptly to the subject that had occupied them since the previous night, when she had learned of Ian Burk's peril upon Ranald's return to Dunyvaig from Knapdale. He had been away two days, leaving her in charge of the castle, although her responsibility was light, since the castle's captain was one of MacDonald's most capable men.
The Lord of the Isles believed, however, that his offspring should know as much about what kept his castles and Lordship running smoothly as the people who did the work, and Dunyvaig was one of his most important holdings. It served both as guardian of the sea-lanes to the south and as safe harbor for his galleys, birlinns, and larger ships of war. From the castle's high, cliff-top site, its view encompassed much of the Kintyre coast and a vast panorama of the sea to the south. The harbor below, in Lagavulin Bay, was hidden from passersby and well fortified.
Ranald's present duty at Dunyvaig was to oversee the careening of MacDonald's ships, a chore done twice a year when scores of men rolled each ship ashore over logs so that they could scrape its bottom clean of barnacles.
This was the second year Mairi had accompanied him to Dunyvaig, entrusted with seeing to its household, to make sure the larders were full and that all was in good repair. For, as competent as the castle's captain was, he was yet unmarried, and therefore her mother, the lady Margaret, had formed the habit of looking in on Dunyvaig at least once a year to see that all was in order. That duty having devolved upon Mairi, she had acquitted herself well the previous year and had returned confidently a month before to do so again.
Thus, when Ranald had said MacDonald desired him to invite a new Knapdale chief to attend the annual Council of the Isles that week at Finlaggan, she had not turned a hair at learning she would be alone overnight among a household of men-at-arms with only her maidservant for protection. No man loyal to her father would harm her or Meg, and few men were more loyal than those at Dunyvaig.
The family would remain at Finlaggan for only a fortnight after the Council adjourned, because they would spend Easter as usual at Ardtornish, MacDonald's favorite seat, fifty miles to the north on the Morvern coast of the Sound of Mull. In midsummer, they would return to Isla so Lady Margaret could take the children to Kilchoman, their summer residence. It was a splendid palace, built only two years before on the west coast of Isla, but it was no place to be in a howling spring storm. Ardtornish, better protected against the winds, was infinitely preferable.
In any event, no household as large as theirs could occupy any residence for long. The demands made on the garderobes, not to mention stores and cellars, made it essential to move about frequently if only to let the servants attend to the cleaning in peace without having to deal with constant demands of family members.
Lady Margaret had sent word to Dunyvaig with Ian Burk a fortnight before, reminding Mairi and Ranald that his grace expected them to have completed their duties there by the time his Council adjourned, because they would both need time to prepare for departure to the north.
That her duties at Dunyvaig would mean missing the Council of the Isles had not distressed her, for although a few men sometimes brought family members, most waited until his grace moved north before bringing wives and marriageable sons and daughters to attend his court. Not only was Ardtornish more centrally located, but everyone was eager to take part in his Easter tinchal, the grand deer hunt that had begun to provide fresh venison for the Easter feast at Ardtornish and had soon grown into an annual social event.
No sooner did she greet Ranald's return to Dunyvaig, however, than she saw from his expression that something was wrong and demanded to know what it was.
"We met one of his grace's birlinns on its way to Loch Tarbert," he said. "They said that most of the councilors have arrived at Finlaggan, and he means to begin the court of grievances tomorrow, and ... well ..."
"And what?" she asked bluntly when he avoided her gaze.
"You won't want to hear it, lass," he warned her, adding reluctantly, "'Tis gey possible that his grace will hang Ian Burk."
"Ian?" Her senses tilted, and a sickening chill swept over her. "But how can he?" she demanded. "Ian is infinitely trustworthy, Ranald. Why, he has looked after my ponies from my childhood-aye, and me, too! What can he possibly have done to warrant hanging?"
"The charge is murder, Mairi, and though I ken fine that you'll be wanting to return to Finlaggan straightaway, we can do naught to prevent his hanging if his accusers prove their charge. Under our Brehon laws-"
"I know our laws, Ranald, but his accusers must be daft. Who was killed?"
"Elma MacCoun," he said. "They say Ian pushed her off a cliff."
"That cannot be so! I tell you, Ranald, Ian has no violence in him."
He did not argue but neither could he placate her. She dismissed his attempts, saying flatly, "We have no time to lose."
He said calmly, "We can scarcely go this minute, lass."
"Mayhap we cannot, but we must go as soon as you can order a galley prepared and we pack our things."
"Tomorrow at dawn will be soon enough," he said. "There will be a host of grievances to hear, because there always are. Moreover, the men I met said only that most of the councilors had arrived, not all."
"But that was yesterday, was it not?" When he nodded, she said, "And his grace does not need any of them to hold his trial, sir, as well you know. Moreover, we cannot turn back the hours, and if we spend too many, Ian will suffer their waste through eternity. I mean to prevent that, Ranald, so do make haste!"
He rolled his eyes at what he clearly believed was a futile promise but made no other effort to dissuade her. Easily the most compliant of her six brothers and half brothers, he rarely proved awkward. But she would have expected assent from the others, too, because as stubborn as some could be, she could be more so.
Having agreed to do as she asked, he lost little time, and now here they were with the fog growing thicker, colder, and eerier until even her own practical mind began conjuring monsters.
At last, however, the tenor call of the horn they had been waiting to hear sounded through the fog from the fortress ramparts of Claig Castle.
The oarsmen's hands tightened on their sweeps.
"Hold water," Ranald warned. "Sound our signal again, and listen well."
The helmsman obeyed, blowing his two-note call.
As the sound faded eerily, Mairi heard the rhythmic splashing of oars that Ranald's quicker ears had already discerned.
Through the fog a deep voice boomed, "Who would pass here?"
"Ranald of Isla, you villain," Ranald bellowed back.
"Guard your steerboard oars, my lord," the deep voice replied with an appreciative chuckle. "We'll be upon ye straightaway."
The dark shape of another galley's prow loomed alongside them on the same side as the helmsman's rudder, and as Ranald's oarsmen on that side raised their sweeps high, she heard the other man order his to hold water. Their oars dug in instantly, bringing the approaching galley to a stop with commendable quickness.
"Welcome, my lord," the deep voice boomed, and Mairi recognized Murdo of Knapdale, captain of Claig. "Be ye returning t' Finlaggan, sir?"
"Aye," Ranald said. "You did well to find us so quickly, Murdo. Would you have done so had we not sounded our horn?"
"We would," Murdo said confidently. "I can hear fish swimming through my waters, sir. Moreover, in the unlikely event that my ears should fail, I've six more boats along the Sound, alert for any fool who might try t' slip past us in this devilish fog without paying his rightful tribute."
"Faith, sir, will each of those six stop us and demand to know our business?" Mairi demanded, fearing further delays.
"Nay, my lady," Murdo said. "I'll signal our code for safe passage t' keep them at bay. Each will pass it on t' the next, and we change our codes each night at uncertain times t' prevent any enemy from using them to our peril. Hark now."
He made a gesture and his helmsman sounded a series of notes from a horn pitched higher than theirs or Claig Castle's.
A moment later, the single long note from Claig sounded again, followed almost immediately by a higher single note in the distance.
"An ye keep the high notes t' larboard and the low ones t' steerboard, ye'll ha' deep water under ye all the way, my lord," Murdo said.
"Aye," Ranald said, nodding to his helmsman.
Taking their beat from the helmsman, the oarsmen rowed smoothly, trusting him to steer a safe course through the Sound.
Meg peered fearfully ahead, but as near as they were now to Port Askaig, the harbor closest to Finlaggan, Mairi felt only relief. Listening as intently for the horns as they all were, no one talked, leaving her again at the mercy of her thoughts. However, now she felt more confident reaching Finlaggan in time to speak for Ian, it occurred to her that the present fog bore a similarity to the mists beclouding her future. Certainly, her progress toward it had been becalmed for some time.
Many times had her father described what that future would be and how someday, in what seemed most unlikely circumstances, she might even become Queen of Scots. But meantime she drifted with the political tide, waiting for political winds to rise and blow her in the direction his grace desired her to go. And a political tide, like any other, could turn without warning.
She had no more power to control her drifting life than to control natural or man-made tides, and in truth, she had not sought to do so. Surrounded by a loving family and esteemed for her capabilities, at times even for her opinions, she was happy enough. Unlike her younger sister Elizabeth, who flirted with every man she met, Mairi had no great longing to marry.
Excerpted from Highland Princess by Amanda Scott Copyright © 2004 by Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission.
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