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Angus was too late.
The gush of magic raced through the air, even up on the high overhanging ridge when he skidded his horse to a halt and threw his leg over her wide back. He slid down Magda's side and didn't stop to pat or thank the red roan mare.
Another surge, thrown like a pulsating shield, hit his senses and he bit back curses. He scrambled down the cliff-face, clinging before he jumped to the loamy beach, so he wouldn't fall in his haste. Last thing he needed was a black and blue arse — or worse, an injury like his da's.
His foolish foolish lass of a sister and his idiot cousin had already opened the Faery Stones. His mother had been right. Even though the dangers of the Fae were well known by the lad and lass, they'd acted unwisely, impulsively. Recklessly.
Fear inched in on the edges of his vision, but he tried to stave it off.
I really am too late.
What if they were harmed ... or killed by a race of people who considered them enemies, no matter they had shared blood?
Angus' heart sank to his gut. His family would never survive their loss. His father and uncles would wage war if their children were lost, no matter the risk.
His strong draw to the magic Stones scattered his dark thoughts, and made his blood thrum the closer he got.
Waves crashed into beach, sounding as loud and angry as he felt, but he paid them no heed. He stormed into the cave that housed the magical portal.
It led to the Realm of the Fae, but with someone who wasn't wholly of Fae blood — as was the case with all three of them — it often could rip open a doorway in time, usually the far far future.
Even before he reached the place inside where the meager entrance widened into a cavern, the Stones called to his magic, humming in welcome, an audible tune in his head. Angus tried to ignore the plea, its power, and focus on the two misfits before him, but the Faery Stones demanded their due, as if claiming the part of him that was Fae.
Five large crystals sat atop five natural-looking rock-like formations on the cave floor, in a semi-circle that looked too perfect to be accidental placement. They were lit from the inside, an almost throbbing radiance, and in turn, illuminated the cave.
They'd been grown, curated with magic, but not by humans. His mother, a former Fae Princess, speculated the Stones had been brought to the Human Realm a millennia ago by curious Fae who wanted to explore their sister realm.
The cave containing the magical gate wasn't overly large, but it wasn't tiny, and the natural floor was littered with starkly white sand, much different than outside on the pebble-ridden beach.
He stilled, eyes landing on a diminutive dark-haired lass, and a broad-shouldered lad standing next to her. His cousin's height and breadth belied his youth of eight and ten years.
Like most MacLeod males, they both towered over his sister. She didn't have the height of Liam's mother, their Aunt Janet; Alexandria was only a few inches past five feet.
They stood next to the crystals, their collective gaze looking from him to the Stones and back. The portal wasn't in sight — it must've closed already.
Then why did the double measure of trouble stand there in front of him?
He'd assumed he'd have to traverse to the Fae Realm to go after them — or worse, into the future.
What'd kept them in the cave?
How much time has passed?
Maybe they hadn't been able to open the Stones? But the magic he'd felt disagreed. There'd been too much present for a failed attempt.
Angus glared, and his younger sister winced; good, she was properly a'feared, even though he had yet to speak. He cleared his throat and told himself to breathe.
Perhaps things weren't as bad as his mother had dreaded. At least he didn't have to go into danger alone to retrieve them.
"What have ye ta say fer yerselves?" he demanded.
Again the pair looked at each other, mute.
Quite unusual for his little pest of a sister.
Angus narrowed his eyes. "Speak. An' be glad 'tis I standin' here, instead of our mother. Or yer father, Liam." He looked at each of them pointedly.
Light from the Stones revealed pink cheeks on both culprits.
Alexandria was dressed not in a fine gown as the lady she was by birth, but in trews and an oversized ivory leine she'd no doubt stolen from a male relative's trunk — maybe even his own. The tight breeches fit well, the purple fabric denoted they probably belonged to their mother.
The lad wore attire like Angus' own — a MacLeod plaid belted on and a saffron leine. At least he'd brought his sword, but it wouldn't help against Fae magic.
"I ..." his sister said, then nothing more.
"We are Fae, too," Liam said.
Angus frowned. "Meanin'?"
Alexandria squared her thin shoulders. "We've a right ta tha Faery Stones, as much as ye and Mother."
"The Stones arena play things. The Fae are dangerous," he said.
"So everaone always says," his sister muttered.
He growled and took a step closer, intentionally looming over her. "Ye know better than ta doubt Mother and Xander's words. Ye are selfish! Da is hurt, badly, and here ye are, playin' games ye know nothin' abou'!" He wanted to grab and shake her.
Her violet eyes — just like their mother's — widened. "Da's hurt?" Her expression melted into something concerned, but that didn't fix a damn thing in Angus' eyes.
"He was tossed from his horse comin' after ye! Broke his leg, an' 'tis bad, lass." He didn't soften his voice. He didn't know how bad just yet, their mother had ordered him to keep going; to go as far as he needed to.
Angus had seen blood. The bone had protruded from their father's shin.
In his peripheral vision, their cousin was pacing. "Liam, what do ye have ta say fer yerself?" he repeated his demand.
The lad shook his head, and his dark hair fell into his violet eyes. He shoved it back and exchanged another look with Lexi Angus didn't miss. She'd been dubbed 'Lexi' by their Aunt Claire, who'd come from the far future and married their father's twin, Uncle Duncan, some twenty years before.
Every last MacLeod usually called her the nickname — except their mother.
"Yer da stayed with ours, but he's less than pleased wit' ye."
His cousin was still young enough to blush deeper. He looked down, studying his boots. "I just wanted ta fly," he whispered.
Angus blew out a breath. "The Fae dinna take kindly ta humans, even if we're all only half. They woulda killed ye, lad. Wi'out remorse or delay. Ye both know tha'."
"I have wings there, like my da."
Alarm rushed over his form and his hands twitched. He kept them at his sides instead of strangling the younger man. "How do ye know tha'?"
"I've gone there a' fore ... I've flown."
Lexi was a brighter red now, and they exchanged yet another look.
They'd always been close, but the nonverbal communication was a bit much. It was getting under Angus' skin. To think he was usually the calm, even-tempered one, like his father. He was acting more like his Uncle Duncan, but then again, the lad and lass had given him cause.
He wanted to rant and rave. Pace and lecture like children deserved. But they weren't wee ones anymore. His sister was nine and ten — of marrying age — and Liam was right behind her, a year younger.
They'd been warned their whole lives of the danger of the Fae, since they all had a full-blooded Fae parent. Besides, hollering at Lexi never worked.
Their father always said she was much like their mother in that regard. They'd been born of a Fae Princess — so their blood was legitimately royal in the other realm.
He sighed and rammed his hand through his long hair, wincing when his fingers found a wind-induced tangle. Angus took a turn of pacing in front of the Faery Stones, trying to compose himself instead of shouting the chaos in his head.
Lexi and Liam stood side-by-side, remaining unusually silent.
Awareness of ... something ... darted down his spine. He whirled and tilted his chin up, studying them with narrowed eyes.
As soon as his sister spared him a glance, she quickly averted her gaze, and their cousin's was downcast at his boots again. Guilt rolled off them both; he could feel it, and he wasn't an empath like his mother.
"What are ye no' tellin' me?" He swallowed, half-fearing the answer.
Lexi took a big breath and glimpsed their cousin once more before meeting Angus head-on. "Somethin' — someone — came through tha portal."
Lila smiled at Lizzie's laughter and jogged to catch up with her friends.
"What's wrong? Ye canna keep up, America?" Sophie winked, and her thick Scottish accent rolled over her senses.
It'd taken time to get used to it, but a year into her three-year fellowship, and she finally didn't have trouble understanding everyone. Handy, since she needed to be completely clear in the operating room.
At first, she'd been offended by the pretty redhead's nickname for her, but there was affection, not distain, when the Scottish doctor nicknamed Lila her country of origin.
Then again, she'd been born in Mexico and her family had moved to Texas when she was an infant, so she was both Mexican and American.
"Come, Lila!" Lizzie called, grinning and flashing dimples. The blonde nurse was so sweet, and the first person at the hospital who'd welcomed the surgeon that had come from so far away. She was English, not Scottish, but had lived in Edinburgh since she'd been a teen. "The group's gonna get inside Dunvegan before we do!"
"Coming!" Lila closed some distance of rocky beach to rejoin them. The day was warm, but the wind chilly, blowing her hair in her face, and making the fabric of her light jacket flap. She fought a shiver; perhaps she should've layered and worn a sweater, too. "Did you get all the shots you wanted?" Lila asked Sophie, who was a budding photographer as well as a doctor.
The redhead grinned and held up her expensive fancy camera. "Aye. Though I'd like one of the three of us."
Lizzie's face lit up and her blue eyes sparkled. Her fair locks danced around her face, making her appear young and innocent. "Oh, of course! I'll ask someone when we rejoin the tour group."
Lila looked out at the waters again. "I love this place. Skye is so peaceful." She noticed Sophie's nod from the corner of her eye.
"We used ta come up here when I was wee." She'd grown up on a sheep farm right outside of Inverness, and proudly spoke of her Highlander ancestry.
Over the last year, these two women had become her closest friends. They'd decided to have a weekend getaway, and had traveled from Edinburgh where they worked at the hospital. They'd stayed with Sophie's family the night before, and had taken a day-trip to the Hebrides, and were going to tour several castles all over the Western Isles.
The stronghold of Clan MacLeod — Dunvegan — was first on the menu. The building was over seven centuries old.
When they'd arrived on the Isle of a Skye as a group, they'd been given time to look around, and had headed down to the beach.
Sophie had wanted to snap some pictures.
Lila reached for her Saint Luke medal. Her grandmother had given it to her when she'd graduated from medical school.
She'd run her thumb over the engraved surface so many times for comfort. It was white gold, and one side depicted the Catholic patron saint of the medical profession and gospel author; the other side displayed a caduceus.
Her fingers failed to enclose on the familiar piece of jewelry. She looked down and unzipped her jacket. Felt inside her shirt, but couldn't locate the fine chain.
"What's wrong?" Lizzie asked.
Lila's stomach jumped and she swallowed her rising panic. "My necklace." She looked at the loamy ground at her feet, then started retracing her steps down the beach. Thank God they weren't that close to the water, she might have a chance to spot it.
I have to find it.
"Did ye have it on the bus?" Sophie asked sensibly.
Both friends had followed and were also studying the terrain.
"Positive," she said, meeting the fellow doctor's green eyes.
"Aye, ye have it on in this photo."
She spared a glance for the camera's small digital display in her friend's hands. Sure enough, the chain peeked out of her jacket, visible on her neck in the picture. Lila looked free and happy on the little screen, her dark hair with wind in it. The smile on her face felt far away as her gut churned.
The necklace was all she had left of her grandmother, her sweet abuelita.
It couldn't be gone.
"I have to find it." Her voice came out more of a whine, but she didn't look up. "My lita gave it to me, and —"
Lizzie grabbed both her hands and Lila met her concerned cornflower blue eyes. "We'll help. I know what it means to you."
She tried to blow out a breath of relief, but her middle was still in knots. She forced a nod and made her way down the beach, staring at every cluster of rocks, big and small. Lila scanned the surface of the sand and pebbles, willing her necklace to appear.
How could she have lost it?
She hadn't felt it fall off, so it could be anywhere.
Something glinted in the sunlight on the gritty ground ahead of her, so she jogged closer. Her heart leapt when she took in the embossed likeness of Saint Luke, and bent to grab it.
Lila brushed the surface off, squeezed it in her fist, and held the pendant to her chest. "Thank you, God. I'm sorry, Lita. I didn't lose it!" She glanced over her shoulder.
Her friends were a ways back, and she looked up at a ridge that rose above her head and hid the sun. It threw a long shadow toward the water, and the image of long grasses that must cover it swayed like ghosts in the moving air.
She didn't remember coming this far down, but she must've if her necklace was here. She ran the chain through her fingers to wipe the last of the sand away. The clasp was broken and hung open, never to be joined with the other side again. "Damn," she whispered.
Lila whirled around and waved her arms. "It's broken, but I found it!" She'd take it to a jewelry store when they got back to Edinburgh and get it fixed. If it wasn't repairable, she could always replace the chain.
"Oh good!" Lizzie yelled through her cupped hands.
Flashing a smile, she put her hand on the cliff-face beside her and pushed off, ready to jog back to her friends. Her body finally loosened, and her necklace was safely in her fist. She didn't want to shove it in her pocket, for fear she'd lose it again.
What if it falls out?
Sea spray hit her face and she winced as the wind picked up, gale strength from nowhere. Lila couldn't see, because her hair smacked her cheeks, poking at her eyes like repeated whips; she stumbled over the rocky surface at her feet.
Sophie called her name, and maybe Lizzie, too, but the sounds were ripped away by what felt like a tornado, pushing her backwards until she slammed into something behind her.
Pain exploded in her upper back and between her shoulder blades.
It was a boulder, a huge one next to the cliff she'd touched moments before.
Lila tried to move away, planting her feet and using it as leverage, but she couldn't gain any purchase, despite her hiking boots. She screamed, but the noise was torn from her mouth, and her body lifted from the ground.
Then, the world went black.
You cannot kill them.
Angus had to keep telling himself that. He bit down until his gums, teeth, and jaw ached in protest. "What?" The demand came out low and deadly.
His sister and cousin both stiffened, then squared their shoulders.
Let them be alarmed; scared. Even terrified would work to his favor.
"'Twas ... a ... lass." Liam's voice cracked as if he was a lad about to become a man, instead of the young adult he actually was. He gripped the hilt of his sword and flexed his fingers, but his hand shook.
At another time, Angus might've laughed, or inquired if his cousin was going to pull the weapon and attack.
Lexi shifted on her feet. "She ... was ... thrown ta the beach."
He glared at the fools before him for the hundredth time since he'd rushed into the cave. "An' ye dinna think ta go after her?"
"Weel, ye came an' —" his cousin said.
"Jesu, lad. The lass shoulda been tha first thing ou' of yer mouths!" he yelled, then darted out of the cavern. He stumbled through the small slit that posed as an entrance. It was narrow and he was large. A sharp edge caught his leine. He pulled away, ignoring the tearing sound that followed.
Angus needed to find the lass, now.
How had he not seen her when he'd arrived up on the ridge?
No movement on the beach below had caught his attention. Then again, he'd been focused on getting inside the Cave of the Faery Stones.
Likely, the new arrival wasn't from 1692. Time travel was disorienting, she could wander into the waters and drown. Worse, traversing the centuries relieved one of their clothing, so she would be out of sorts and naked.
Excerpted from "Highland Oath"
Copyright © 2017 C.A. Szarek.
Excerpted by permission of Paper Dragon Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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