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Chapter One Scotland, the Highlands
Autumn, 1170 In the hushed, shadowed time before dawn, Alainna set a small sack of oats and a handful of wildflowers at the base of the stone pillar. She murmured a blessing and stood back. Beyond the tall stone, the loch swept rhythmically to shore, and a pale glow edged the sky.
She twisted her hands anxiously, then stilled herself, realizing that impatience would not hurry the beneficent spirit of the Maiden.
The pillar called the Stone Maiden rose twelve feet in height, a column of gray granite shaped like a gowned woman. Ancient carvings on the front and back were worn smooth in places. Mist wreathed the stone, cool and damp.
"Maiden," she said, "I am Alainna, daughter of Laren of Kinlochan, son of Laren, son of Donal, son of Aodh--" She did not continue, although she knew the names of her ancestors back to the Stone Maiden herself--with whom she shared a name, from a[aglainn, beautiful--and to Labhrainn, the Irish prince who had founded the clan centuries ago.
Legend said that the stone housed the spirit of a maiden who had been captured there, long ago, by a faery spell. The Stone Maiden, tradition claimed, acted as a guardian for Clan Laren. Generations of the clan had left offerings and had spoken charms to appeal for the Maiden's protection. As clan leader since her father's death a few months earlier, Alainna hoped for a reassuring omen to report to her kin.
Now she murmured her heartfelt wish to see her clan safe and flourishing, and waited.
Wind whispered over her head, loosening strands of her braided, red-gold hair. She heard birdsong, the shush of the loch, her deerhound's bark as he fretted a field mouse nearby. The rising sun glinted on the wooden fortress of Kinlochan across the narrow stretch of water. She stood patiently beside the stone, but no clear sign appeared.
She sighed. Somehow she must save Clan Laren from vanishing into Highland memory. The solution she needed would not come from offerings and chants. Only swift action would solve their dilemma.
The deerhound ran toward her to circle her anxiously, barking. He faced the hill that sloped away from the lochside. Peering through the mist, Alainna saw a red deer there, nosing through old heather.
"Ach, Finan, do you long to chase the deer, then?" she asked, touching his head, which reached above her waist. The dog's fierce growl raised chills along Alainna's spine. "Finan, what is it?"
A man walked over the top of the hill and came down the hillside. Alainna knew him by his height and heavy build, by his wild black hair and the red and brown hues of his plaid.
Cormac, the young chief of Clan Nechtan, her enemy, came toward her. Had she known that he was out here, that he watched her when she was alone but for the dog, she would not have lingered.
"Hold, Finan!" she commanded. She curled her hand in the dog's leather collar. His long body quivered, growls rumbled in his chest, and his wiry blue-gray coat lifted. But he stayed, as she knew he would.
"Alainna of Kinlochan!" Cormac halted a few feet away, spreading his feet in a wide stance. His deep, thick voice sundered the peaceful atmosphere. "I saw you while I was hunting with my kinsmen. I want a word with you in private."
"Cormac MacNechtan," she said. "We have nothing to say."
"We do. Are your kinsmen about?" He glanced around.
"They will be here soon," she said, knowing they would search for her when her absence was discovered, or whenever someone inside Kinlochan glanced across the loch toward the stone.
She knew Cormac by sight, but had rarely spoken to him since childhood, when their paths had crossed too often as she wandered the hills with her two younger brothers and their foster brother. Cormac had proven himself mean-spirited both as child and as man, and she wanted nothing to do with him.
But she and Cormac were the leaders of their feuding clans, and she could not shun him if he was willing to talk with her. The beginning of peace between them might be but words away.
She stood proud and straight, like a small twin to the great pillar stone, and held the growling dog's collar firmly to show Cormac that she was protected by the dog as well as by the stone and its legend.
"Quiet that great blue hound of yours, or I will do it for you." Cormac touched the dirk sheathed at his belt.
"Finan Mo[aar," she said. "Big Finan. Hold, you." The deerhound stayed still, his growls low.
"A great hound like that is a man's dog, and no hound for a woman," Cormac observed.
"Finan has been mine from his birth."
"Then he has been spoiled by a woman's hand."
She watched Cormac evenly. "Try him, and see if it is so."
"You are safe," he said. "For now. The legend of the Stone Maiden ensures that no man of Clan Nechtan can harm a woman of Clan Laren, or he will suffer the consequences."
"It is a shame no legend prevents the men of Clan Nechtan from warring on the men of Clan Laren," she snapped.
"We bear an ancient grudge toward you that gives us the right to war upon you."
She glared at him. "Your hatred of us is ancient, but ours is just as old! You would destroy us all if you could."
"Not you, Alainna. You, I want for my own."
"Do not say that to me in the Maiden's presence!"
"She cannot protect you much longer. The faery spell ends in the spring--we all know that." He scowled at her. He was not unhandsome, even with a thrusting, wide jaw, but the anger in his dark eyes spoiled his countenance more than any flaw. "Some say that the Maiden's power to help her people wanes even now."
"Our bard says the Maiden's power will increase when the faery spell ends," she said. In truth, no one was sure what would happen when the stone's magic ended the next spring.
"Old Lorne MacLaren would say so, rather than say your clan is lost!" Cormac flipped his fingers in dismissal. "The Stone Maiden will no longer keep you safe, if ever she could. The Maiden and her clan will both crumble."
"We may be diminished by feud, and illness, and poor luck," she said hotly. "We may have few left of our name. We may be threatened by a cruel enemy"--she glared at him--"but our pride, our legacy endures. You cannot destroy that with your raids and your hatred!"
He shrugged. "If you will listen, I have good tidings for your clan."
"Glad news for Clan Nechtan cannot be glad news for Clan Laren," she said. She glanced across the narrow loch toward Kinlochan. Tendrils of smoke rose from the hearth fires; soon her kinsmen would come looking for her. If they saw Cormac here with her, there would be another skirmish.
"I have petitioned King William for the hand of the Maiden of Kinlochan. The living maiden, not the stone one." He snickered at his poor jest.
She gasped. "I would never wed you!"
"You are an heiress now, and must wed soon. Your father is gone and cannot arrange your marriage."
"Gone by your hand!"
"Not mine, Alainna girl." He shook his head. "Not mine."
"Yours or another's, a MacNechtan blade killed him, and took my brothers too. I would never marry you or any of your blood!"
"You and your elder kinsmen want to end this feud, I know. And my own kinsmen urge me to wed you. It is time I married."
"You can wed the handfasted wife you cast aside," she said.
"Not her. You." He swelled his chest. "We can gain no honor fighting the old men of Clan Laren. You cannot oversee this vast property alone. So you must become my bride. I know your father wanted this."
"Never," she said through her teeth. Finan growled low, and shifted forward. She touched the dog's head with trembling fingers. "You would take our land and our very name from us!"
His scowl was dark and deep. "The king has the right to decide your marriage, since you are sole heiress, holding title and land. We will leave this up to him. I have sent a message to King William to offer for you. Such an easy end to this feud will please him."
"The king himself cannot force me to do what I will not."
"A stubborn woman is a foolish woman," he muttered. "I heard that you are a willful girl, but I hoped you had sense." He gestured impatiently. "The men of Clan Laren are too old to wield swords. Your foster brother, Giric MacGregor, is young, but he is one man, and we are many." He stepped forward, but moved back when the dog barked sharply. "Wed me, and the blood of Clan Laren will live on in our sons."
"I want no sons with the name of MacNechtan!"
He chuckled. "Lovely but troublesome. I hear you are strong, too. They say you are trained as a stonemason, like some others in your clan, and use a hammer and chisel like a man." He skimmed her body with a gleaming gaze. "I have a hammer and tools you can handle whenever you like." His smile grew wicked.
"Go away," she snapped. "My arm is strong, but it tires from holding back this great hound."
Cormac narrowed his brown eyes. Cold anger flickered there. "Maiden of stone," he hissed. "Heed me well. Spring will come, and your safety ends with it. Who will protect your clan then? Not a girl with a mallet. Not a few old men."
"My clan will kill you someday, Cormac," she murmured.
He smiled, flat and hard. "I could take you now if I wanted, at the foot of that stone. Neither hound nor faeries could stop me. Or I can bide my time until spring. I have a choice. You have none."
"I do." Alainna lifted her chin. "I will not wed you. And neither king nor Highlandman can force me."
"I will be generous, and grant you until Saint Brighid's day, when the faery spell ends, to agree. By then the king will have sent word of his approval. Wed me, or watch your clan die." He shrugged. "Either way will end the feud."
He whirled before she could reply, and strode up the misted hill to disappear over the top. Alainna watched, her heart pounding. The dog barked, but stayed beside her, his growl relentless, his body taut.
She flattened her palm on cool granite and closed her eyes, wishing fervently for a solution, a savior. A miracle. She bowed her head to pray, and whispered an old Gaelic blessing to please both her Christian and her ancient heritage.
Then she turned to walk toward Kinlochan. Finan ran ahead of her through long brown grasses as she rounded the end of the loch, where the water shushed peacefully over pebbles and stones.
The morning sun had burned off the mist, and the wooden tower of Kinlochan, inside its surrounding timber palisade, glowed earthy red in the dawn light. Beyond it, dark mountains soared into the distance, their rugged crests ringed by clouds. The long, narrow loch spread like a pool of silver at their base.
The fortress gate swung wide and three men ran out, plaids flapping over bare legs. They waved and skirted the loch along the path she had taken earlier.
She waved back and walked ahead, then nearly tripped when her toe struck a stick in the ground. Bending, she picked up a discarded arrow that lay deep in the heather. The arrow was weathered and shabby, although the iron point was still sharp.
She wondered if this was the omen she sought. If so, it was a poor one, for it must mean more war.
She began to toss it away, then stopped, remembering her recent dream of a golden warrior whose shield bore the design of a single arrow. He had offered to save her distressed people. Entranced, she had been willing to go with him, even to the Otherworld.
She sighed, thinking of that strong, beautiful warrior. But dreams were of no use to her now.
Finan barked and ran toward her kinsmen. She followed thoughtfully, the arrow clasped in her hand.
"Alainna!" Her foster brother, Giric, called and ran toward her through the long grasses, alongside her elderly cousin Niall and Lulach, one of her two great-uncles. The dog bounded toward them. Giric touched a hand to Finan's head in passing and received an adoring look in return.
They came toward her, Giric moving with agile grace despite his tall, large build. His brown hair blew loose around his handsome head, and a belted plaid fluttered over muscular legs.
"We saw you with Cormac," he said. "Are you harmed?"
"Can we slay the man? Where did he go?" Niall asked. His cheeks were sunken and whiskered, his thin lips tight with anger. A breeze fluttered his silvery hair over his face. He pushed it back with the scarred stump of his left wrist.
"Are you hurt, girl?" Lulach stepped forward, his hair iron and silver, his blue eyes angry. "I would have killed Black Cormac myself if I had seen him sooner."
"Your old legs could not catch him," Niall said.
"I will worry what my old legs can do," Lulach snapped.
"I am fine," Alainna assured them quickly. "I was under the protection of the Maiden. Cormac would never harm me there."
"True, he would be a fool to forget the spell," Niall said.
"He is a fool," Lulach pointed out.
"You need the protection of a stout blade, not a standing stone," Giric said. He was normally relaxed in manner, but his face was taut and his hands fisted. "Do not trust any man of Clan Nechtan."
"Cormac does not dare to harm me," she reassured them. But she shivered inwardly, recalling Cormac's threat to take her at the foot of the stone, spell or none.
"She has no blade, but she does have an arrow," Niall said. He peered at the shaft in her hand. "Where did you get that?"
"I found it in the grass."
"Elf-arrow," he muttered. "Put it down, it may have been lost by the faeries."
"It is human-made," Lulach said. "Needs new feathering, but the point is still good."
"I found it after I made an offering to the Maiden. It may be an omen for us," she said.
"A sign that there will be one less MacNechtan," Niall said. "It is good to make an offering on such a fine day, but you should not have come out here alone."
"You will not have the Maiden's protection for long," Lulach said. "Soon we will mark the end of seven hundred years of the faery spell."
"It is months until Saint Brighid's day," Alainna said.
"So what did Black Cormac want?" Niall asked.
"To take your other hand," Lulach drawled.
"Baothan," Niall grumbled, "blockhead."
Giric stifled a laugh. "Peace, now, I beg you," he said. "Alainna has asked all of her kinfolk to bide the winter at Kinlochan. We must have peace among ourselves. Alainna has enough to worry her."
"True," Niall said. "Alainna, we came down from the hills late last night after seeing Esa. She refuses to come to Kinlochan. We even offered to carry her great loom, but she wants to stay by her own hearth."
"I wish we could convince her to join us," Alainna said.
"Convince slate to turn to marble," Lulach said. "She has made up her mind to stay there for the winter."
"She mourns her Ruari Mo[aar still, though it has been over a year since we had word of his death." Alainna sighed. "Such an enduring, strong love is hard to lose."
"We will go and talk to her again," Giric said. "Tell us what Cormac wanted, Alainna."
"It is obvious what Cormac wants, and we should take his head off for it," Lulach said, fisting his hands on his hips.
"He spoke of marriage," Alainna said.
Lulach snorted in disdain. Niall blinked as if horrified.
"What did he say?" Giric asked sharply.
"I will explain all over some hot salted porridge. I am hungry." She stepped forward and whistled to Finan, who had strayed to the loch's edge.
"Cormac MacNechtan thinks to wed our toiseach, our leader, our own youngest one?" Niall asked, as the men walked beside her. "That can never happen!"
"Never," Lulach said. ``Our clans need peace, and she needs a husband, but not that husband."
"We have discussed it often since Laren MacLaren's death," Giric said. "It is time you married, Alainna."
"It is not easy to find a warrior willing to join a feud, yet one who will please this clan," she replied.
"Marriage to the chief of Clan Laren offers fine rewards," Niall said. "Forests filled with deer, a loch thick with fish, grass for cattle, a beautiful girl of proud blood--"
"And a blood feud generations old," Alainna added bitterly.
"You are our youngest one, the last of our blood," Lulach said. "A carefully chosen marriage can make our clan safe for generations to come."
Safe. She wanted them all safe, so much. Her throat tightened. "But whatever man I wed will give his name to our children. What then for Clan Laren?"
Her kinsmen were silent as they walked beside her.
"The man she marries could take our name," Niall suggested.
"It is sometimes done, I have heard." Lulach said.
Alainna frowned. "Where would we find a man to accept the name of our clan, as well as our troubles?"
"If only you could marry our Giric," Niall said. "He is not your blood kin, and he loves all of us well."
"But he is her foster brother," Lulach pointed out.
"It is up to the king to decide whom she will wed," Giric said. "He has the right to choose a husband for an unmarried heiress. Alainna, you must pay homage for your inheritance soon. Ask King William for help in the matter."
She nodded, realizing that she could appeal to the king before Cormac's petition was considered and approved. "I will, but it must be soon."
"Giric can ride with you to the royal court," Niall said.
"The king winters in Dunfermline, two days' journey from here. He will surely know of some Highland warrior hungry for land, and hungry for a feud."
"What if he suggests a foreign knight?" Lulach asked.
Niall shook his head. "We will tell him what we want. We are loyal, and he does not want to see an ancient clan disappear. He will support us and find us the Celtic champion that we need."
"Alainna," Giric said quietly, watching her. "This is what you desire in a husband, is it not?"
"What pleases my kin pleases me," she said, but her voice trembled suddenly.
Her secret desire would be impossible to fulfill, she knew. The golden warrior she had seen once in a dream did not exist.
She turned away, still gripping the old arrow in her hand, and walked toward the rocky slope that led to Kinlochan's wooden gate.
Reprinted from Stone Maiden by Susan King by permission of Berkley Mass Market, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Susan King. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.