Read an Excerpt
By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScotland Spring 1481
His robes itched. Lucas gritted his teeth against the urge to throw them off and vigorously scratch every inch of his body he could reach. He did not know how his cousin Matthew endured wearing the things day in and day out. Since the man had happily dedicated his life to the service of God, Lucas did not think Matthew deserved such an excruciating penance. A man willing to sacrifice so much for God ought to able to do so in more comfortable garb.
"This may have been a bad idea, Eachann," Lucas murmured to his mount as he paused on a small rise to stare down at the village of Dunlochan.
His big brown gelding snorted and began to graze on the grass at his hooves.
"Weel, there is nay turning back now. Nay, I am but suffering a moment of uncertainty and it shames me. I have just ne'er been verra skilled in subterfuge, aye? 'Tis a blunt mon I am and this shall require me to be subtle and sly. But, 'tis nay a worry for I have been practicing."
Lucas frowned at his horse and sternly told himself that the animal only sounded as if it had just snickered. On the other hand, if the animal could understand what he said, snickering would probably be an appropriate response. Yet, he had no choice. He needed revenge. It was a hunger insidehim that demanded feeding. It was not something he could ask his family to risk themselves for, either, although they had been more than willing to do so. That willingness was one reason he had had to slip away under cover of night, telling no one where he was going, not even his twin.
This was his fight and his alone. Surrounded by the strong, skilled fighting men of his clan, he knew he would feel deprived of satisfying the other need he had. He needed to prove to himself that his injuries had not left him incapable of being the warrior he had been before he had been beaten. He needed to defeat the men who had tried to destroy him and defeat them all by himself. His family had not fully understood that need. They had not fully understood his need to work so hard, so continuously, to regain his skills after he had recovered from the beating either. He knew the praise they had given him as he had slowly progressed from invalid to fighting man had, in part, been an attempt to stop him from striving so hard to regain his former abilities, to overcome the stiffness and pain in his leg. He desperately needed to see that he was as good as he had been, that he had not been robbed of the one true strength he had. He had to prove himself worthy of being the heir to Donncoill.
"Artan would understand," he said, stroking Eachann's strong neck as he slowly rode down the hill toward the village.
He felt a pang of lingering grief. His twin had his own life now, one separate from the one they had shared since the womb. Artan had a wife, his own lands, and a family of his own. Lucas was happy for his twin yet he was still grieved by the loss of the other half of himself. In his heart Lucas knew he and Artan could never be fully separated but now Artan shared himself with others as he had only ever shared himself with Lucas. It would take some getting used to.
"And I have no one."
Lucas grimaced. He sounded like a small sulky child yet that feeling of being completely alone was one he could not shake. It disgusted him, but he knew part of it was that he had lost not only Artan; he had lost Katerina. She had betrayed him and did not deserve his grief, yet it lingered. No other woman could banish the emptiness left by her loss. No other woman could ease the coldness left by her vicious betrayal. He could still see her watching as he was beaten nigh unto death. She had made no sound, no move to save him. She had not even shed a tear.
He shook aside those dark memories and the pain they still brought him. Lucas decided that once he had proven to himself that he was the man he used to be he would find himself a woman and rut himself blind. He would exhaust himself in soft, welcoming arms and sweat out the poison of Katerina. Even though it was not fully a fidelity to Katerina that had kept him almost celibate, he knew a lingering hunger for her, for the passion they had shared, was one reason he found it difficult to satisfy his needs elsewhere. In his mind he was done with her, but it was obvious his heart and body were still enslaved. He would overcome his reluctance to reveal his scars and occasional awkwardness to a woman and find himself a lover when he returned to Donncoill. Maybe even a wife, he mused as he reined in before the small inn in the heart of the village. All too clearly recalling Katerina's dark blue eyes and honey-blond hair, he decided that woman would be dark. It was time to make the cut sharp and complete.
Dismounting, Lucas gave the care of Eachann over to a bone-thin youth who quickly appeared at his side. The lad stared at him with wide blue eyes, looking much as if he had just seen a ghost, and that look made Lucas uneasy. Subtly he checked to make certain that his cowl still covered the hair he had been unable to cut. Although he had told himself he would need the cowl up at all times to shadow his far too recognizable face, Lucas knew it was vanity that had made him reluctant to cut off his long black hair and his warrior braids. Deciding the boy might just be a little simple, Lucas collected his saddle-packs, then gave the lad a coin before making his way into the inn.
After taking only two steps into the building, Lucas felt the chill of fear speed down his spine and stopped to look around. This was where he had been captured, dragged away to be savagely beaten and then left for dead. Despite the nightmares he still suffered on occasion he had thought he had conquered the unreasonable fear his beating had left him with.
Annoyance over such a weakness helped him quell that fear. Standing straighter he made his way to a table set in a shadowy corner at the back of the room. He had barely sat down when a buxom fair-haired maid hurried over to greet him. If he recalled right, her name was Annie.
"Father," she began.
"Nay, my child. I am nay tonsured yet," Lucas said, hoping such a tale would help explain away any mistakes he might make. "I am on pilgrimage ere I return to the monastery and take my final vows."
"Oh." Annie sighed. "I was hoping ye were looking for a place to serve God's will." She briefly glared at the men drinking ale near the large fireplace. "We could certainly use a holy mon here. Dunlochan has become steeped in sin and evil."
"I will be certain to tell my brothers of your need when I return to them, child."
"Thank ye, Father. Ah, I mean, sir. How can I serve ye?"
"Food, ale, and a bed for the night, lass."
In but moments Lucas was enjoying a rich ale, a hearty mutton stew, and thick warm bread. The good food served by the inn was one reason he had lingered in Dunlochan long enough to meet Katerina. His stomach had certainly led him astray that day, he thought sourly. In truth, his stomach may have kept him at Dunlochan long enough to meet Katerina, but it was another heedless part of him that had truly led him astray. One look at her lithe body, her long thick hair the color of sweet clover honey, and her wide deep blue eyes and all his wits had sunk right down into his groin. He had thought he had met his mate and all he had found was betrayal and pain.
Lucas cursed silently. The woman would not get out of his life, out of his mind, or out of his heart. That would not stop him from getting his revenge on her, however. He was not quite sure how he would accomplish that yet, but he would. First the men who had tried to kill him and then the woman who had given the order.
Another casualty of that dark night was his trust in people, in his ability to judge them as friend or foe. Lucas had believed Katerina was his mate, the woman he had been born to be with. Instead she had nearly been his death. It was hard to trust his own judgment after such a near-fatal error and an ability to discern whom to trust was important to a warrior. How could he ever be a good laird to the people of Donncoill if he could not even tell friend from foe?
He sipped his ale and studied the men near the fireplace. Lucas was sure that at least one of them had been there that night, but the shadows cast by the fire made it difficult to see the man clearly. One of the things he recalled clearly was that few of the men had been fair as most of the Haldanes were. It had puzzled him that Katerina would hire mercenaries, but, perhaps, her own people would never have obeyed such an order from her. If those men were no more than hired swords it would make the killing of them easier for few would call out for vengeance when they died.
Six men suddenly entered the inn and Lucas stiffened. No shadows hid their faces and he recognized each one. It was hard to control the urge to immediately draw his sword and set after them. He shuddered faintly, the memory of the beating flaring crisp and clear in his mind and body. Lucas rubbed his left leg, the ache of shattered bones sharpened by those dark memories. His right hand throbbed as if it recalled each and every slam of a boot on it. The scar that now ran raggedly over his right cheek itched and Lucas could almost feel the pain of the knife's blade cutting through the flesh there.
He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Lucas knew he needed to push those memories aside if he was to think clearly. The revenge he hungered for could not be accomplished if he acted too quickly or if he gave in to the fierce urge to immediately draw his sword and attack these men. When he realized part of his ability to hold back was because he did not think he could defeat the six men with a direct attack, he silently cursed again. His confidence in his newly regained battle skills was obviously not as strong as he had thought it was.
"Annie!" bellowed one of the men as he and his companions sat down. "Get your arse o'er here and pour us some ale, wench!"
There was an obvious caution in Annie's steps as she approached the men with tankards and a ewer of ale. "Hush, Ranald," she said. "I saw ye come in and was ready. There is nay need to bellow so."
Lucas watched as the young woman did her best to pour each man a tankard of ale even as she tried to avoid their grasping hands. Unlike many another lass who worked in such a place, Annie was no whore easily gained by a coin or two, but the men treated her as if she was. By the time she was able to get away from their table, she was flushed with anger and her eyes were shining with tears of shame. Lucas had to take a deep drink of the strong ale to quell the urge to leap to her defense. He gave her a small smile when she paused by his table to refill his tankard and wondered why that made her eyes narrow and cause a frown to tighten her full mouth.
"Have ye been here before, sir?" she asked as she suddenly sat down across the scarred table from him.
"Nay, why should ye think so, child?" he asked.
"There was something about your smile," she said then shrugged. "'Twas familiar."
Lucas had no idea how a smile could be familiar but told himself to remember to be more cautious about doing so again. "Mayhap ye just see too few, aye?"
"Certainly too few that show me such fine, white teeth."
"A blessing I got from my family and God. That and cleaning them regularly."
She nodded. "The Lady Katerina taught me the value of cleaning my teeth."
"A good and Godly woman is she?"
"She was, aye."
"Aye, she died last spring, poor wee lass." She glared at the men who had treated her so badly. "They and the ladies at the keep say my lady killed herself, but I dinnae believe it. She would ne'er have done such a thing. Aye, and the lovely mon who was courting her disappeared on the verra same day. No one has an answer for where he went." She suddenly looked straight at Lucas. "That is who your smile reminded me of, I am thinking. A bonnie lad he was. He did make my lady happy, he did."
Lucas was too shocked to do more than nod. He could not even think of something to say to turn aside the dangerous comparison Annie had just made. Katerina was dead. The news hit him like a sound blow to the chest and it took him a moment to catch his breath. He told himself that the sharp grief that swept over him was born of the fact that he had lost all chance to exact his revenge upon the woman for her betrayal, but a small voice in his mind scoffed at that explanation. He ruthlessly silenced it.
"Is it a sin to visit her grave e'en though she is buried in unconsecrated ground?" Annie asked.
"Nay, lass," he replied, his voice a little hoarse from the feelings he was fighting. "Her soul needs your prayers e'en more than another's, aye?"
The thought of Katerina resting in the cold ground was more than Lucas could bear and he hastily pushed it aside. He also ignored the questions swirling in his mind, ones that demanded answers. He could not believe Katerina would kill herself either, but this was not the time to solve that puzzle. As he sought his revenge on the men who had beaten him he could ask a few questions, but that revenge had to be the first thing on his mind for now. When that was done he would discover the truth about Katerina's death. No matter what she had done to him, he knew he would never be able to rest easy with the thought of her lovely body rotting in unconsecrated soil.
"Do ye think ye could pray for her, sir? Would that be a sin?"
Lucas had no idea and fumbled for an answer. "'Tis my duty to pray for lost souls, child."
"I could take ye to where she is buried," Annie began and then scowled when Ranald and two of his companions came up to the table. "If ye want more ale, ye just needed to ask."
"I came to see why ye are sitting here and talking so cozily with this monk," said Ranald.
"What business is it of yours, eh?"
"Ye waste your time wooing a monk, lass. If ye are hungry for a mon, I am more than willing to see to your needs." He grinned when his companions laughed.
"I but wished to talk to someone who has traveled beyond the boundaries of Haldane land," she snapped. "Someone who doesnae smell or curse or try to lift my skirts." Annie suddenly blushed and looked at Lucas. "Pardon me for speaking so, sir."
"'Tis nay ye who must beg pardon, child, but the men who compel ye to speak so," Lucas said, watching Ranald closely.
"Here now, I but woo the lass," said Ranald, glaring at Lucas.
"Is that what ye call it?"
"What would ye ken about it, eh? Ye have given it all up for God, aye? Or have ye? Are ye one of those who says vows to God out of one side of his mouth whilst wooing the lasses out the other?"
"Ye insult my honor," Lucas said coldly, wishing the man would leave for the urge to make him pay now, and pay dearly, for every twinge of pain Lucas had suffered over the last year was growing too strong to ignore. "I but question your skill at wooing."
"Do ye now. And just what are ye doing in Dunlochan? There is no monastery near here."
"He is on a pilgrimage ere he takes his vows," said Annie. "Leave him be and go back to your friends and your ale."
"Ye defend him most prettily, lass. I have to wonder why." Ranald scowled at Lucas. "What is he hiding under those robes?"
Even as Lucas became aware of the sudden danger he was in, Ranald yanked back his cowl and exposed the hair Lucas had been too vain to cut. For a brief moment, everyone just stared at Lucas, their eyes wide and their mouths gaping. Lucas actually considered attacking the man Ranald immediately but good sense intervened. The man's friends were already rising from their seats and inching closer.
Taking advantage of everyone's shock at seeing what they thought was a ghost, Lucas leapt to his feet, grabbed his saddle-packs, and bolted for the door. He gained the outside and turned toward the stable only to stumble to a halt as someone grabbed his robe from behind. Cursing, he turned and kicked the man in the face. Knowing he would not make it to his horse in time, Lucas tossed aside his saddle-packs and yanked off his robes. By the time Ranald and his friends had finished stumbling out of the inn, Lucas was facing them with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other.
"So, it is ye," said Ranald as he drew his sword and he and his companions moved to stand facing Lucas. "Ye are supposed to be dead. We threw ye off the cliff and saw ye just lying there."
"And ye ne'er went back to see if I stayed there, did ye," Lucas said, his scorn clear to hear in his voice.
"Why trouble ourselves? We had beaten ye soundly, ye were bleeding from several wounds, and we threw ye off a cliff."
Lucas shrugged. "I got up and went home," he said, knowing his family would groan to hear him describe the many travails he had gone through to return to Donncoill in such simple terms.
Excerpted from Highland Savage by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2007 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.