Read an ExcerptA Lost Touch of Paradise
By Amy Tolnitch Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Amy Tolnitch
All right reserved.
Chapter One Toraig Village, The Highlands 1195
Iosobal stared down at the flames licking her heels in disbelief. She looked out over the crowd of villagers. A sea of angry, fearful faces glared back at her.
"Burn her!" a grim-faced man yelled.
Next to him, an apple-cheeked, young woman's face twisted in hate. "Be gone, spawn of the devil," she shouted. "I did nothing wrong," Iosobal hollered over the crackling of the flames beneath her. The villagers had tied her hands behind her around a stout branch. Her feet rested atop a mountain of kindling.
A man walked toward her, his eyes burning with condemnation. "You are a witch."
"I healed the child. I helped him." By Saint Brigid, why were they doing this to her? She had only sought to help the poor boy, his leg crushed by an uncontrollable horse.
In one moment, the boy's mother offered thanks, and in the next the villagers dragged her to this pyre.
Behind her accuser, she spied the boy. His face held the same disbelief she felt. His mother tugged at him, but he dug in his heels, his horror-struck gaze fastened to hers.
"Through sorcery," the man spat. "Evil sorcery."
"Not evil," Iosobal insisted, though with sick dread, she realized she wasted her breath. It was just as her mother had warned her. These people of the mainland would not understand someone like her, and feared what they could not comprehend. She should never have come here, never have let her curiosity lead her from their hidden island.
"She is just a child," the boy's mother called out.
The man did not even look at her. "A child of the devil. 'Tis best to kill her now, afore she grows old enough to spawn more like her."
"I did nothing wrong," Iosobal yelled.
"Your very existence is wrong. And for that, you shall burn," he said to Iosobal. His expression was jubilant as he picked up a fiery piece of kindling and set it to the wood at the top of the pile.
The villagers chanted, "Burn the witch, burn the witch!"
The pyre erupted in flame. As heat washed over her body, Iosobal closed her eyes and envisioned Parraba Island. "Take me home," she whispered.
* * *
Tunvegan Castle, Scotland Fifteen Years Later
Lugh MacKeir, Laird of Tunvegan, and master of all within his personal realm, stared down at his dying daughter and felt as helpless as a newborn babe.
Four months Ailie had been ill.
Ill with the same sickness that had taken his beloved wife, Agatha, three years ago. Taken her within six months.
He turned toward the latest in a long succession of healers, and stamped down the urge to cleave the man's head from his shoulders.
The man backed up a step. "I tried, Laird." His throat worked. "I am sorry. There is nothing to be done."
"You are no healer." Useless fools, he cursed to himself. He'd lost count of the numbers of so-called healers who'd seen Ailie. And failed. Failed to do a single thing to ease her suffering. Just as they'd failed with Agatha.
His daughter slid her small hand in his, and gazed up at him as if he could conquer anything. "Help me, Father," she whispered. "I do not want to die. I do not want to leave you."
By the saints, his eyes were wet again. Even as he told himself a laird did not shed tears, he felt one slowly slide down his cheek. Dear Lord, she is only seven years of age, he silently prayed. Do not take her from me.
As he gazed into Ailie's watery, aquamarine eyes, his resolve hardened. "I will help you, my heart." Somehow, he added silently.
Suddenly, the answer came. The only course left to him. "Be gone from here," he ordered the healer. "Today."
The man sidled out the door.
Over the years, Lugh had heard dire warnings of a mysterious isle ruled by a sorceress, an isle no one could reach. It was only the whisper of a legend; a story told in hushed tones in the late evening after many mugs of ale had been drunk. A legend of a woman, a witch-who knew? Yet ... a powerful healer.
He feared no man. Or woman. And any reasoned man knew that magic was but a superstitious fable.
He gripped his daughter's hand tight. "We face this together, my heart."
"And the Laird of Tunvegan is always victorious, right Father?"
"Always." Lugh could barely see her through the veil of tears in his eyes. By God, he would find a way to save her. No matter what it took. He knelt down beside the bed and stroked damp strands of hair from her pinched face, hair the same flaxen color as her mother's. Looking into her eyes was like looking into his own green ones, with a splash of blue added. She is mine, he swore to himself. And I shall keep her such. "On the morrow, we shall leave Tunvegan."
Her brows drew together in puzzlement. "Why?"
"To find the person who shall heal you."
She smiled. "Good." As she closed her eyes, Lugh patted her hand, rose and nodded to the maid who sat in the corner. "Pack her things. We leave at first light."
"But," the maid hesitated, "to where, Laird? She is so weak, she-"
"Cease. I will save my daughter." With that, he turned and strode out of the chamber. He had much to do.
* * *
Iosobal stood on the mountainside and kicked at a loose stone with the toe of her shoe. The two most stalwart men on her island wrestled with one of the massive rocks that blocked her cave. Unfortunately, since many of the men left Parraba, there was not an abundance from which to choose. The level of grunts and curses told her these two were having no more success than any other.
One of the men glanced up, and pushed a lock of red hair from his gleaming forehead. He averted his gaze from hers. "I am sorry, my lady. 'Tis just too heavy."
Though she seethed with frustration, Iosobal made herself give them a light smile, concealing her heartache over the fact that an essential part of her remained beyond reach. "Thank you for trying. If you would care to stop at the palace, Niamh shall fetch you food and drink before you return to the village."
The men exchanged what Iosobal privately referred to as The Look. A look that said there was no way in Heaven or on Earth that they would dare to set foot in the Lady of the Isle's fortress. Over the years, she had heard many of the villagers' stories, usually by accident. According to some, she lured men inside, and turned them into her slaves. In others, to cross the threshold meant you would never be seen again. The rest were too ludicrous or grisly to think about.
"Uh, my thanks, my lady, but we'd best be getting back to work."
Iosobal nodded and they hastened away.
She glared at the stones, and held out her hands. "Move," she commanded.
Nothing happened. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. She knew even Niamh, her maid, cook, and housekeeper, thought her foolish to care so much about a simple cave. But Niamh did not understand. Iosobal doubted she could. Niamh was a simple soul, happy to provide service in exchange for refuge.
No, there was no one else alive who knew that the cave was her sanctuary, her history, the place she connected with the spirits of her ancestors. It was the hallowed place she had buried her mother.
And because of her carelessness, it now held the one object she treasured above all others-the moonstone necklace her mother gave her long ago. With the necklace, she could see the true heart of a person. Without it, she felt exposed, weakened.
She tilted her head toward the cloudless sky. "Am I being punished? Is that why I cannot move the stones? Why?"
No answer came to her, and she slumped in defeat. For some reason, the wary look on the men's faces came to mind. Neither would look her in the eye. She knew the reason. With her long, dark hair and pale violet eyes, she very much looked like the magical being she was.
She squared her shoulders and pushed the moment of loneliness away.
Slowly, she picked her way down the grassy hillside until she reached the sea. Above her, the pink walls of her home gleamed in the sun. As always, the clear blue water soothed her. She waded into the warm water and gazed at the empty horizon.
"Aid me, Lord. Send me the way."
* * *
The next morning, Lugh stood in the bailey of Tunvegan, issuing orders and readying his horse for travel. He had already dispatched a man to hire a boat for them at the coast.
People rushed back and forth with supplies, blankets, food, and drink, all loaded in several bags attached to the packhorses. Lugh had his weapons and his horse. He needed naught else, but he would see to Ailie's comfort as best he could. He felt the doubtful stares of his people, and heard the whispers, but he ignored it all. Many thought his actions would seal his daughter's fate, but he could not stay and do nothing. He knew with a certainty Ailie would not survive that. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied one of his men, Branor, approach.
Branor strode quickly and came to a stop close to Lugh. His brown-eyed gaze fixed on Lugh with what Lugh called his "scholarly look."
"Have you lost your wits?" he asked. "Laird?"
"Mayhap, but 'tis all I can think to do." Lugh tightened the girth on his saddle and his stallion shifted his feet.
"'Tis only a legend, Lugh. No one knows if any of it is true. No one has ever found this isle."
Lugh narrowed his gaze. "Then I shall be the first."
Branor muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like, "Reckless fool."
"I will not stay here and watch my daughter die, Branor."
"I know how much losing Agatha wounded you, but-"
"This is not about Agatha. It is about my only child." Damn, but his eyes were near to leaking again. He shook his head and sucked in a breath.
"Very well. I shall go with you." Branor's weathered face was solemn.
"'Tis too dangerous. I cannot ask that of you."
"You are not asking. And you may need a man at your back."
Lugh stared at him for a moment, considering his offer. Branor was nearly as big as he, and well skilled with a blade. He was also Lugh's most loyal man, despite the unfortunate fact he was not a Scot by birth and much of his past remained a mystery. Lugh slowly reached out and clasped Branor's hand. "Thank you, my friend."
Branor nodded and headed off toward the stable.
After his departure, the hum of activity in the bailey quieted, and Lugh turned. An older man emerged from the massive stone keep, cradling a small bundle in his arms. Lugh's heart swelled with pride as he watched them approach.
Ailie's face was pale as bone, but she wore a sunny smile and waved to people as she passed, calling out greetings. By the saints, the lass knew the names of everyone at Tunvegan, Lugh realized. His were not the only eyes to have leakage problems, he noted.
"Einar," Lugh said as they neared him. "Thank you."
Einar nodded. "Is all in readiness?"
"Aye." Lugh leapt atop his horse. "Branor accompanies me."
"Ah. Good." He handed Ailie up to Lugh. "God be with you on your quest."
"See to the safety of Tunvegan," Lugh charged. He lifted his head, and shouted, "Einar acts with my authority as laird." As he passed his gaze over his people, he briefly paused on Lachlann, who stared back at him with a hard took. Lachlann, who had acted strangely for some time now. Lugh inwardly shrugged. He would have to see to the man when they returned. Naught mattered now but Ailie.
"Take care of our wee lass," Einar said.
Lugh nodded. "That I shall," he said. He handed Einar a sealed letter. "Have this delivered to Falcon's Craig. I would let Agatha's family know what befalls us."
"I shall see to it, Laird."
Lugh gathered Ailie close and rode out of the gate without a backward glance.
* * *
Ailie pointed with a shriek of excitement. "Look, Father, a dolphin."
Lugh smiled down at her, gazing for a moment at the sleek creature riding the waves. "'Tis a good omen."
"Do you think we are getting close?"
Branor let out a snort. "Assuming that old fisherman had even an inkling of what he claimed."
"Dinna be so doubtful, Branor," Lugh admonished. "Luck is with us." He gestured with a hand. "The skies are blue, the sun eases the chill from the air, and the seas are calm." For the first time in months, he felt a spark of hope. Even the sea air seemed to bless Ailie. Her face held a tinge of color, and she had barely stopped chattering since they had set sail.
"I like it on the water, Father," Ailie said, grinning.
"Aye. As do I. Look, Ailie," he said as he pointed off into the distance. "You can see the shape of an island."
Her small face turned thoughtful. "I wonder who lives there."
Branor reached over and tousled her hair. "Perhaps one of the fair-folk."
"Oh. That would be wonderful."
"Dinna fill the child's head with tales," Lugh said. "The fair-folk are every bit as much a myth as selkies. Magic," he snorted. Ailie's face fell, but only for an instant before she spotted another dolphin.
Lugh tilted his face back, closed his eyes, and breathed in the salty breeze as they sailed along. They could not have wished for more tranquil weather, he thought.
"Lugh," Branor said.
Lugh snapped his eyes open at the edge in Branor's voice. Low, gray clouds rolled toward them over the water, boiling and rumbling with flashes of lightning. He looked around and noticed that the birds had fled. An ominous silence weighed in the air.
"What do you want to do?" Branor asked. "We could make for that island."
"Nay." He could not explain it, but something told him to press on. "We continue."
"'Tis only a storm. 'Twill pass."
The clouds streamed closer, and within minutes, they found themselves in the center of a thunderstorm. "Get down," he shouted to Ailie, pressing her into the bottom of the boat, and pulling a cloak on top of her. Rain pelted down on them in a fierce sheet as the boat bucked and rolled in the waves.
Over the howling wind, he heard Branor shout, "I would say we are very close indeed."
"Steady the boat!" Lugh shouted. He cut down the sail, and grabbed an oar. Ailie peered up at him through a split in the cloth. Terror etched lines around her eyes, and he made himself give her a reassuring smile. She pulled the cloak over her head and huddled in the bottom of the boat.
The craft caught a swell and rose high into the air before again smashing down. Water sprayed over the sides. If not for his and Branor's combined strength at the oars, they would have overturned. Lugh's blood chilled at the thought, and he renewed his efforts.
"Should we turn back?" Branor shouted.
Lugh glanced behind him, but saw only a dark veil of rain. "Too late."
A huge wave rocked the boat, tipping it sideways, and Lugh heard a scream. Ailie. Horrified, he watched her slide toward the side, her fingers scrabbling for something to grab hold of, but finding nothing. He lunged, and snatched her back as the boat righted itself with a jolting smack.
Ailie trembled and though he could barely see her face, he knew her tears mixed with the rain. He felt around until he found a rope; and stumbling like a drunken man, hauled her with him and tied her to the mast. "It will be all right," he said into her ear, and pressed a kiss to her cold forehead.
Branor was trying his best, but the boat was out of control, spinning and plowing over the waves with great, shuddering thumps.
Lugh stood and peered into the storm, but could see nothing but the dense waterfall of rain. The air turned chill, and lightning streaked the sky. Suddenly, though the fog and the rain, he saw a huge black wave bearing down on them.
"No!" he shouted into the wind, shaking his fist. "Damn you! You'll not stop me!" The rain blinded him as he waited for the wave to bury them, cursing at fate and a cruel God that would allow his child to perish.
And abruptly, the storm parted. They slid through a break in the wall of rain and onto a sheet of water so blue and clear and smooth it looked like glass. Before them rose a majestic island with a lush, green mountain in its center. White sand stretched up to a hillside, which was covered with dense, green growth and bright yellow flowers.
For a moment, they each just stared in amazement. Lugh squinted in the sunlight, and saw a woman standing on the hillside over the beach. He sucked in a breath. She looked like some kind of ancient goddess, her dark hair swirling around her slim form, her body still. Watching.
He blinked and she was gone.
"Father, look," Ailie said. "There is a man waiting for us."
Lugh saw she was right. The man stared at them with a faintly disapproving look. He was short and wiry, with a thick patch of gray hair, and measuring brown eyes.
"By the saints, what kind of place is this?" Branor asked as he rowed them toward shore.
"It is beautiful," Ailie said, and then bent over with a deep cough that shook her whole body.
Lugh untied her and took her into his arms. She shivered and wrapped her thin arms around his neck as he stroked her hair. They glided across the water until they bumped up against shore.
Branor jumped out and pulled the boat partway onto the beach.
Lugh followed and stripped the sodden cloak from Ailie, dropping it onto the smooth sand. She titled her face up toward the sun. "'Tis warm," she said in wonder.
The man stepped forward. "Welcome to Parraba. I am Hemming."
"I am The MacKeir, Laird of Tunvegan. I seek-"
"I know who you seek." Hemming briefly glanced down at Ailie.
Excerpted from A Lost Touch of Paradise by Amy Tolnitch Copyright © 2006 by Amy Tolnitch. Excerpted by permission.
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