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Penelope MacCrichton sat still, scarcely daring to breathe, as she watched the tall, broad-shouldered figure approach through the dense, mist-laden woods. A giant charcoal-gray deerhound kept pace like a floating shadow of Satan beside him.
The figure was that of a young man, large, handsome, and powerfully built, armed with a dirk and wearing a gray-and-muted-green-plaid kilt. Long, raven's-wing-black hair flowed to his shoulders, waving lightly with his movements. His bare feet were thick with mud, and his fierce scowl made him look puzzled and angry, but he did not frighten Penelope. She had seen the figure and his dog before, not many times, but often enough to make them both familiar to her.
Neither man nor dog paid heed to the thick-growing trees or dense shrubbery; however, as she knew from long experience, such barriers presented no more obstacle to this pair than they would to any other ghosts.
The man's mouth looked large and cruel. His eyes were narrowed and flintlike, as if in anger or distress; but as always, both the figure and the huge dog beside him seemed unaware of her presence, and neither made a sound as they passed. That the ground beneath their feet was damp from melted snow, and covered with the thick carpet ofleaf-mold that had accumulated over centuries, might account for the silence of their footsteps. Nonetheless, branches reaching out from every direction would have rustled as they brushed against most passersby. Thus the silence of the two was particularly eerie and unnatural.
The sudden, rippling tirrirri-ripp of a snow bunting diverted Penelope's attention. Glancing toward the sound, she saw the little black-and-white bird hopping about on the ground nearby, searching for insects and seeds. When she looked back, the manly figure and that of the giant deerhound had vanished.
Penelope did not try to follow them, knowing that such an attempt would prove useless, and knowing, too, that the pair would have vanished even had she been looking right at them. They were not of this earth, that pair. Nevertheless, she felt a glow of satisfaction as she rose from the fallen log where she had been sitting, and brushed off her skirt. She had walked this way on purpose, hoping to see them, like paying a call on old friends.
It had been months since the last time, before winter had set in and cast its lingering blanket of white over the Highlands. Spring had been in the air for nearly a fortnight now, but it was a wet spring, requiring the children to stay indoors more than they had liked, which meant that Penelope had had little time to call her own. Mary, Countess of Balcardane, was kind though, for her own dependent childhood had taught her to understand as few others of the nobility did the burden that gratitude laid upon the grateful. She was careful never to take unfair advantage of Penelope's delight in the three children of Balcardane.
Thus, when the first true break in the weather had occurred near Lady Day, and the earl decided to journey from Balcardane to Dunraven Castle, on the southeast shore of Loch Creran, to collect his rents, Mary had prevailed on him to take her, their children, and his two foster children along. She had done more than that, though, for when the next morning had dawned with clear, sunny skies smiling down on the mist-shrouded loch, she had told Penelope to take the day unto herself.
"I'll mind the bairns, love," she had said. "You do as you like. Duncan has taken Chuff and two of the men across the loch to Shian Towers to be sure that all is well there, so I shall ask Cook to prepare a picnic for the children and me. We'll walk up to the top of the hill behind the castle, where it should stay sunny and warm all day. Later, if you decide to seek company, you can find us there."
Enjoying her solitude, Penelope had walked to the narrows at the northeast end of the loch, and crossed to the western shore, to wander through the woods above Shian in search of her ghost. Now, mission accomplished, she turned with a light heart back to Dunraven, noting changes in the landscape that had escaped her notice before.
Already the leaves of primroses and wood-sorrel were pushing up through the newest layer of the thick leaf-mold carpet, searching for air and sunshine. Spurge with its large leathery leaves, bronzed and purple, showed new curved shoots, so she knew that in a month the woods would be full of yellow spurge saucers with their strangely-shaped little flowers inside.
Fresh nettles and dock leaves that the snow had squashed flat to the earth stretched upward again, and violets that had borne their old leaves through the winter were unfolding new ones. Looking into their hearts, she could see the new flowers budding. Patches of sunlight revealed lesser celandine coming into leaf, and nearer the burn, greater celandine also, its stalks already charged with the deep yellow juice that Mary would collect for her eye wash. Its roots were good for other remedies, too, Penelope knew.
Emerging from the woods near the narrows, she enjoyed a view straight down the long arm of the loch. As she knew from a map of the Highlands on the wall in the earl's bookroom at Balcardane, Loch Creran had the shape of a large check mark with its long arm running about six miles northeast to southwest and its short arm running about two miles southeast to northwest. The long arm was pinched about a third of the way down, at that point known logically enough as the Narrows, where it was possible for a careful pedestrian to cross from bank to bank.
The loch's source was a snow-fed burn that flowed swiftly down through Glen Creran, and at its outlet, its waters spilled past the little island of Eriska into the Lynn of Lorne near its confluence with Loch Linnhe. Shian Towers, her brother's estate, sat on the point of land that formed the angle of the check and included everything north of the castle to the Strath of Appin. Across the loch lay the vast lands of Dunraven, once a great fortress guarding Campbell lands from Appin Country marauders, now merely one of Balcardane's many holdings. The steeply sloping hillside on the Dunraven side was green with heather and bracken.
Sunlight dappled the rippling waters of the loch and bathed the earth with its healthy warmth. All around her, in the woods and out in the open, birds sang joyfully. The twittering of the last few weeks had turned to cheerful songs, for they had finished their squabbles over the best nesting sites and ownership of building materials, and were now busy hatching eggs or feeding nestlings.
As Penelope crossed to the sandy cart track that ran to the crest of the hill from the path by the river, separating oaks, beech, holly, and birch from the pine woods that spread over into the next glen, she heard a familiar voice call her name.
Turning back, she saw her brother's familiar figure loping toward her from the grassy slope that separated Shian Towers from its vast acres of woodland. Beyond him, the castle's crenellated walls loomed on the horizon, and below the castle she could see three men in a sailboat putting out into the loch from the dock near the water gate.
"I thought you might have come over today," Charles, Lord MacCrichton, shouted as he crossed the burn in two long leaps from boulder to boulder. "I told Himself I'd walk back so I could bear you company if you had. Did you run away from the brats, lass?"
She smiled, waiting for him to come nearer before she said, "They are not brats, Chuff, and you are a villain to call them so."
His eyes, singularly light in color with heavy dark lashes, crinkled at the corners when he chuckled. Reaching out to pull one of her thick golden braids, he said, "You look like a bairn yourself, lassie, with your hair all twisted in plaits."
She shrugged. "I had them pinned up in ladylike coils before, but some of the pins fell out when I ran down the hillside, so I pulled out the rest."
"And lost them all, I'll wager," Chuff said with a grin.
"Well, some, but the others I put in my pocket," she said, patting that part of her skirt beneath which the pocket lived.
His hair was tied simply at the nape of his neck with a narrow black ribbon; for, like Black Duncan Campbell, fifth Earl of Balcardane, Chuff disdained the wigs and periwigs of more fashion-conscious men. Although in childhood, his hair had been nearly as blond as Penelope's, it had darkened over the years to a soft golden brown. Early responsibilities had aged him prematurely, so that he looked older than his twenty years, but he was, in his sister's opinion and that of a number of the other young women in Appin country, a strikingly handsome young man.
He wore a rough coat and breeches, but they were well cut, and although mud coated his boots, his linen was clean and snowy white. He did not wear a hat. If, upon leaving Dunraven, he had taken one with him, or gloves, he had set them down somewhere at Shian and forgotten about them.
Penelope smiled at him again and linked her arm companionably with his.
He smiled back, but as they walked, the smile faded and a frown took its place. "There's smoke again yonder," he said. "They'll be burning more trees at the Taynuilt bloomery, damn their unnatural hides."
Penelope shook her head at the great plumes of gray smoke rising above the hills to the south. "I'm glad Himself won't let them burn our woods," she said.
"We're fortunate, lass. Them that need to bring in sheep to survive the English destruction of the clans must clear land for grazing, and when cut wood brings money, as well, it's more temptation than most men can resist. 'Tis a crime, nonetheless, to burn every forest within range just to melt a bit of metal."
"Himself says they do it only in Scotland," Penelope reminded him. "The English have laws against using their wood to smelt iron."
"We have laws to protect our forests, too," Chuff said, "but no one enforces those laws here like they do the English ones. We've got bloomeries sprouting up all over Scotland, they say, maybe a hundred or more, and it takes five tons of timber to smelt just one ton of pig-iron. Still, there's a huge demand for the iron nowadays, so I'll wager they'll keep doing it till the wood runs out."
"I wonder if that's why he looked so angry," Penelope said musingly.
"Why who looked angry?"
She threw him a saucy look. "You'll only be calling me daft again if I tell you, so just you never mind who."
He tried to look stern as he shook his head at her, but his eyes twinkled. He said, "You're saying you saw your ghost again, are you?"
"Do you doubt me, sir?"
"I don't doubt that you believe in him, Pinkie," he said, calling her, as he usually did, by her childhood nickname. "I just don't believe in ghosts, myself."
"It seems odd that you've never seen him, since the land he haunts belongs to you," she said thoughtfully.
"Not all the land," he protested.
"I've only ever seen him on Shian land, Chuff."
"Never at Balcardane or Dunraven?"
"Never. Only in the woods above Shian and twice ... twice inside."
"When?" he demanded. "You never told me you'd seen him inside." He sounded indignant, which was understandable, since Shian Towers belonged to him.
"I never told anyone. You're the only one to whom I've mentioned him at all, and you said I was daft and teased me about him when I did tell you."
"I never teased you that much, Pinkie, did I?"
His voice sounded troubled, so she hastened to reassure him. "Not so much," she agreed, thinking that, much or not, it had been enough to silence her.
"I remember the first time you told me about him," Chuff said. "It was when we all came to Dunraven the summer after the old earl and our uncle died. You didn't say you'd seen your ghost before that, but you must have if you saw him inside. You weren't inside again for years afterward, and I don't think you've stayed there overnight since the day we left, as children."
"Aye, I did see him before ever we went away to live with Mary and Himself." She hesitated, but he was looking down at her with a frown and she knew he would not let her stop there. "Do you remember, Chuff, when the laird-our uncle-sent me to work in the kitchens soon after we arrived at Shian?"
He spoke curtly, but she knew his anger was for things that lay in the past. Quietly, she said, "There was a man who worked there. Looking back, I think he must have been only a scullion, but of course, everyone in the castle then was more important than I was, and much bigger. I was not yet seven."
"And scrawny," he said. "You were right scrawny then, lass."
"Well, so were you. That man delighted in teasing me. He struck me once, and he pulled my hair, but even worse, he liked to pet me like a dog or cat. It made my flesh creep when he would touch me. On a day not long before we left he was particularly horrid, and I had begun crying. Don't look so fierce," she added. "He's probably dead by now. Many of them died when the laird did, after all."
"Go on about your ghost, lass."
"Well, it was then. The horrid man had caught hold of me, and I was trying to get free. He shook me, then suddenly he cried out and he let me go so abruptly that I fell. When I looked up he was there."
"My ghost. He stood between us, and the man who had been tormenting me just stood there glaring. At first I thought my ghost was real and that the man was glaring at him, but he wasn't. The horrid man took a step toward me, then stopped and threw his arms around himself in the way one does when one is very cold. He began shivering something fierce. Only it was not cold, Chuff, because we were near the kitchen fire. He told the cook he was going to fetch wood, and he never came near me again. Of course, we went away with Mary soon after, but still ..."
He nodded. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I would have, I suppose, if you had believed me when I told you about seeing him in the woods that time, but when you didn't, I guess I decided you didn't want to know any of the details about him. You were a bit jealous, I expect."
"No, really, Chuff. You were only nine then, remember, and you were so protective of me that I am not sure you would have welcomed any other protector."
"Hoots, lass, I welcomed Himself, I can tell you, and our Mary."
"Yes, but they were different. They protected both of us, and your inheritance. They were real, Chuff, and willing to take the place of the parents we had never known. Before you came to trust them, though, you still looked after me," she added gently. "You did so until Himself sent you off to school."
"Aye, and I didn't much want to go then, either," he admitted, giving her arm a squeeze. "You looked so sad the day I left. I'll never forget that, lassie. If I had known how you pined for me-"
"I'm glad they didn't tell you," she said quickly. "Charles, Lord MacCrichton should be an educated man. They were right to send you to Edinburgh, and it's right that you should go to Oxford now."
"Anything more that I need to know I could learn from Himself," Chuff said.
"He says you cannot, that one needs to know too much nowadays, that things are changing so rapidly that one man on his own cannot keep up with the changes."
"Then I could study at Edinburgh," he said. "I'd not need to be so far from home, Pinkie. I miss you, too, you know, when I'm away."
"I do know," she said, "but Himself says we must learn more about England and the English, and at least he's letting me go to London, too, Chuff."
"Do you want to go?"
"Well, I don't want to leave the Highlands, but I do want to see where you'll be, since he will take me," she said. "He and Mary both say that England is not the scary place it's always been in my mind, and that I ought to see as much for myself. Most of all, though, it means not having to say good-bye to you so soon. Before you have to go to Oxford we'll have at least six weeks together in London."
"To get a little town bronze," Chuff said, grinning, as he repeated the phrase they had heard the earl use more than once. "You'll like dressing up, Pinkie."
"Aye, I will that," she agreed, "but not as much as Lady Agnes will."
Chuff chuckled. "Lady Agnes has always wanted to go to London, has she not, but I wonder how much she'll like it there if people insist on calling her the Dowager Countess of Balcardane, instead of Lady Agnes Campbell."
"She's such a dear that I daresay they will call her whatever she tells them to call her, especially since she will keep right on explaining to them why they must do so until they feel as if their eyes have begun spinning in their heads," Pinkie said, thinking fondly of the earl's chatty mother, who had accepted two ragged children into her household as easily as if they had been her own grandchildren.
"She'll fair talk the hair off their heads; that's true enough," Chuff said with the twinkle that generally lit his eyes when he spoke of Lady Agnes.
Excerpted from Highland Spirits by Amanda Scott Copyright © 1999 by Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission.
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