Loving a Highland Sibyl (Preview)

Chapter One

His heart hammered within his breast, and his throat was dry. Cináed took a drink from his waterskin, hoping it would help settle his nerves. He stared up at the sky and watched the six crows, black as pitch, circling overhead. Then one by one, they swooped down and landed on the tree that stood before the large stone he sat upon.

With the coming of autumn, the tree was bare. The crows alighted on those branches that jutted into the air like skeletal arms that had burst from the wide, thick trunk. Their black, glittering eyes fell on him, and Cináed felt a shiver of discomfort slide through his body. It looked as if the crows were truly seeing him. Seeing through him. Their gruff, throaty caws rang out, sounding like an ominous warning of doom that was descending over him.

As he watched the birds, he searched his mind, trying to recall what his mother had said about crows. Steeped in the old ways, she was always looked for signs and portents. His father, a pious man who believed in the Christian God, had tried to discourage her from her pagan practices. But his love for Cináed ’s mother was so great, he could deny her nothing. Not even her own form of faith. And so, as long as she was careful and only practiced in private, never drawing attention to herself or her beliefs, Cináed ’s father indulged her in the one thing she had ever asked for.

But try as he might, he could not remember what his mother had said about crows.

“I just ken it wasnae good,” he muttered to himself.

He ran his finger along the drawstring on his bow, sorely tempted to fire off a couple of arrows at the crows. But knowing their appearance probably wasn’t a good omen, to begin with, he feared what might happen if he killed one or two of them. Not that he was a firm believer in the old ways. The truth was, Cináed was not sure what he believed. Or if he believed in anything at all.

As the crows continued to caw at him, furthering his discomfort, he got to his feet, then bent down and picked up a rock. He spun and hurled it at the tree. The crows didn’t move until the stone slammed into the trunk, issuing a hard knocking sound. They took wing noisily, flapping away from the tree in unison and flew off.

“Good riddance tae bad rubbish,” he called after them.

Cináed walked through the open field and found a seldom-used path that cut through the forest that would lead him home. He had told his mother that he was going hunting this morning, but as of yet, he had not even drawn his bow. His heart was not in it today. But he knew he would need to find his good humor before he returned to the village. It was his mother’s naming day after all, and he wanted to ensure she enjoyed her day, rather than wallow in their shared misery.

They were less than a year past his father’s death, and he still weathered the pain of losing. As did his mother. It was a heavy burden that weighed them both down, but only when he was alone, away from the eyes of his clan, could Cináed indulge in his grief. As the Laird, he was expected to be strong and to keep his own emotions hidden from the world. He had to project an image of stoic strength. He had to appear unaffected by anything the world threw at him, and handle all challenges with an aplomb he often did not feel.

But that was his responsibility as the Laird of his clan. Having seen just twenty-one summers, it was a responsibility Cináed did not feel ready for. But when his father passed, it was thrust upon him, and he had no choice but to take up his father’s mantle.

Cináed thought back to those last days with his father. He had tried so hard to prepare him, trying to impart every bit of wisdom in his head, but his father was having difficulty even drawing breath there by the end. He had watched his father wither, decline, and seem to decay right before his eyes. And the morning he left the world, Cináed was almost relieved. It shamed him to admit that, but he was pleased by the fact that his father was no longer in pain.

His father’s death was expected, but that did not mean it did not hurt. Both he and his mother bore the scars. But Cináed knew it was his responsibility to bear it, move forward, and provide for his clan. He could – and would – honor his father’s memory by being the greatest Laird, their clan has ever known.

“There ye are.”

The voice of his best friend – and right arm – Eoghan, pulled him out of his reverie. Eoghan snatched his game back off his belt and looked inside, a small chuckle passing his lips.

“Two rabbits and a squirrel,” he noted.

Cináed shrugged. “A deer wouldnae fit in me bag.”

“Aye,” Eoghan nodded. “That is true.”

They walked through the village together in silence. Eoghan knew better than to ride him too hard about it. He knew Cináed sometimes needed time to himself. He led Eoghan to the village’s great hall and watched as the workers bustled about, setting up the tables for the night’s festivities. On the far side of the hall, Cináed saw the musicians gathered together, practicing and tuning their instruments.

Satisfied that everything was progressing in the hall, they ventured out to the field behind it where games would be played, and more tables were being set up. Cináed knew it was all probably a bit over the top and a bit too extravagant, but he wanted to overwhelm his mother with fun and joy. As hard as his father’s death had hit him, it hit her even harder. She had not been the same since his father died, and although he was not so naive as to think a party would fix everything, he hoped that at least for a night, she could lay her burdens down and enjoy herself.

“Have ye seen Raibert today?” Cináed asked.

“Nay. He’s been scarce all day.”

Cináed nodded. “Can ye take me game bag tae thae kitchens? I need tae see about me maither.”

“Aye. I’ll catch up with ye later.”

Cináed clapped him on the back and headed off, walking toward his family home. It was a small wood and stone keep that had sprouted originally from a large croft house that stood on the shore of the lake. It had a dual-layer of high, stone and mortar walls, the space between them filled with earth. A lattice of wood topped it, and that was overlaid with a thick layer of thatch.

His father had continued to build on the home until shortly before he passed, adding a pair of turrets and a sally port in the main gate. Backed up against the lake, the keep was defensible from all sides. From the main hall, had added several different rooms off of the main hall that served as their personal chambers, and continued building out from there. It was small compared to the castles of the English lords, but larger than the rest of the homes in the village, suitable his father had said, for the Laird.

Cináed stepped through the front door of the main hall and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden dimness. A fire burned low in the round pit in the center of the hall, and against the far wall opposite the door, the Laird’s chair sat atop a raised, stepped platform. A second, smaller chair sat on the step below the Laird’s chair, meant for the Lady. Not that Cináed had any serious prospects for a bride.

He walked through the empty hall and into his mother’s chamber to find her lying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, a forlorn look upon her face. Cináed had found her like that more times than he could count. He worried about her and hated to see her so consumed by her grief.

When she heard him come in, she sat up and gave him a smile, obviously hoping he did not see her in such a state. As usual, he pretended that he did not notice, which she always seemed to appreciate.

“Good day, Maither,” he said, dropping down onto her bed beside her.

His mother took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze as a warmer smile, but one that still did not reach her eyes stretched across her lips. With hair the color of spun gold and eyes as blue as the sky, he thought his mother was still a beautiful woman except for the look of grief that permeated all of her features.

“How was thae hunt this morrow, me son?”

“Twas nae very fruitful,” he replied. “I didnae add much tae thae feast tonight.”

Her smile was wan. “Oh yes, thae feast.”

“It’ll be good for ye,” he said. “It’ll also be good for thae clan tae see ye. They love ye well, Maither.”

She nodded. “I ken,” she replied. “And I love them just as well.”

“Then ye need tae come out tonight. Ye need tae dance. Ye need tae laugh,” I tell her. “Ye need tae eat, drink, and make merry. As much for ye as for them.”

Cináed ’s mother laid a hand gently on his cheek and smiled. “I will do me best.”

“This is yer night, Maither,” I say. “Thae whole clan is comin’ out tae celebrate ye. Tae show that they love ye.”

“I think some of them are comin’ for thae free drink,” she says with a smile.

“Aye. That’s probably true.”

They shared a laugh together. It wasn’t much, but it was the first honest laugh Cináed had heard from her in a long while. It was a start. One he hoped they could build on. Perhaps someday in the not too distant future, she would be closer to the woman she used to be again. Cináed held out every hope for that.

He got to his feet and leaned down, placing a gentle kiss atop her head. “I need tae see tae some things,” he said. “But ye get some rest. We’ve got a long, fun night ahead of us.”

She nodded, and he turned, heading out of her chambers. He gave thought to asking her about the significance of the crows but decided he did not want to ruin the mood. It could wait. He was going to ensure that tonight was going to be about nothing more than fun and love if it killed him.


Chapter Two

It was a cool, cloudy night, with the thick clouds, the color of slate blotting out the moonlight entirely. The fire pit in the great hall burned bright, as did the bonfires spread throughout the yard outside. The air around them was saturated with the sound of the musicians playing a lively tune and the laughter of the people as they danced, played games and made merry.

His mother sat at one of the tables outside, laughing and clapping along in time with the music. Her eyes sparkled, and the smile on her face was wide and genuine, and it filled Cináed ’s heart with a joy he had not known in some time.

“Yer maither seems tae be enjoyin’ herself,” Eoghan grinned.

He nodded. “Aye. She does,” Cináed said and then flashed him a grin. “I think Annag wants ye tae dance with her.”

“Aye. I think she does,” Eoghan replied. “I suppose I should indulge her.”

Cináed walked with his friend as he took Annag by the hand and led her out to where everybody was dancing. Cináed grabbed his mother’s hand, making her laugh and squeal as he pulled her to her feet. He waved to the musicians to keep the lively tune going, and Cináed pulled his mother into the mass of bodies.

They danced until his mother was out of breath and sweat rolled down her face. But she laughed, and she smiled.

“I need a drink,” she said. “And to sit down.”

Cináed followed her to the table and signaled for the wine bearers to bring some refreshments to their table. They arrived a moment later with drinks for them, and both he and his mother fell silent as they drank for a moment. His mother sat back, her breath finally returning.

“Ye shouldnae be spendin’ yer evenin’ with me,” she said. “There are plenty of lasses who’d love tae be dancin’ with ye.”

“And they’ll want tae dance with me tomorrow,” he shrugged. “Tonight’s yer night, Maither.”

She gave him a smile. “Tis very sweet,” she says. “But I’d love tae see ye find a lass tae spend yer time with.”

“And I will,” Cináed said, though it was honestly, the furthest thing from his mind.

“I want tae see yer babies before I d…”

Her words trailed off, and her face darkened as she realized what she was going to say. His mother’s face fell, and a light of sadness entered her eyes once more. Cináed was desperate to banish that darkness and get her back to enjoying her night again.

“Would ye like another honey-sweet cake?” he offered.

She smiled and put her hand on her stomach. “I think I’ve had tae many sweet cakes already.”

He laughed. “Tis yer namin’ day. There’s no such thing as too many,” he said and jumped to his feet. “Ye sit tight. I’m goin’ tae find ye another sweet cake.”

Cináed worked his way back through the crowd, stopping to talk to half a dozen different women who were all vying for his attention. Cináed knew that eventually, he would have to wed. He knew he needed to produce an heir. But he felt even less ready for that than he did when he ascended to the Lairdship. That was something, though, that he could kick down the road for a little while. At least that was within his control.

He was hot and sweating, despite the coolness of the evening. What he wanted was some water. Cináed walked around the side of the great hall and came in through a door in the rear that let him in behind the podium where the Laird’s chair sat. This section was sectioned off from the rest of the hall by large tapestries that hung from the wooden lattice overhead.

The hall was relatively quiet. There were far fewer people in the hall… most of them older people who had no desire to be outside dancing, gaming, or carrying on. It was quiet enough that he could hear, very clearly, the voice of his uncle Raibert. He had to be sitting in the Laird’s chair. The second voice was Raibert’s oldest friend, Ranald. He would not have given it a second thought, but for hearing his name mentioned in their conversation. Curious, he leaned closer to the tapestry, so he was hidden, but still able to hear.

“Aye,” Raibert said. “Thae lad shouldnae be thae Laird. He’s tae young. Inexperienced. Nor dae, I think he even wants tae be Laird.”

“Aye. I got that sense from him,” Ranald replied. “Ye ask me, I think he’s tae weak tae be a Laird.”

“Aye. He is nae as strong as his faither was,” Raibert agreed. “Nor is he as strong as I am.”

Cináed rolled his eyes. He was not sure how Ranald would have gotten that sense from him when the two had not conversed but a handful of times… and never about him being Laird. They only spoke usually when Ranald was complaining about one thing or another. But that his uncle thought he was weak was something new. And if he was honest with himself, his uncle’s words hurt. They bothered him on a deep level.

“So what are ye goin’ tae dae,” Ranald pressed.

“I daenae yet,” Raibert replied. “But somethin’ needs tae be done. That much is sure to me.”

“It’d be a shame if somethin’ happened tae thae lad,” Ranald said.

“It would at that,” Raibert replied. “Thae lad goes huntin’ a lot. Ye never ken what might happen out there in the forest.”

“I’ve heard of men goin’ out there who were never seen again,” Ranald added.  “Lots of animals out there can eat a man whole.”

They both laughed as if it was the funniest jest they had ever heard. Cináed ’s jaw was clenched, and his hands balled into fists.

“I tell ye though, I’d feel bad for the Lady Freya.”

“Aye. I daenae ken thae lad’s maither would survive it,” his uncle replied. “She’s teeterin’ on thae edge as it is.”

“Tis a shame. She’s a beautiful lass.”

“She is,” Raibert agreed. “I tell ye, I’d like tae share a bed with her.”

Cináed ’s face burned as he listened to them. The rage within him, when they spoke of his mother, flared bright and hot. Cináed would have been well within his rights as Laird to step in right then and there and had them taken and thrown into a cell. What they were talking about was tantamount to treason.

He and his uncle had never gotten on all that well. And Cináed knew it was because Raibert believed he should have been named the Laird, rather than his father. And once his father died, Raibert once again made it known he thought he should have been named Laird, rather than himself. It was as if Raibert did not know how the line of succession worked. Or, more likely, he did not care.

And ever since Cináed had ascended to the Laird’s seat, Raibert had been working to undermine him. Nothing overt, and nothing obvious, but Raibert spoke to a lot of people within the clan. He had been told that they had heard his uncle whispering poisoned words in many ears, trying to turn the clan against him.

That too was treason. A crime that was punishable by a trip to the headsman. Cináed had held off, not wanting to cause dissension among the clan, nor wanting to kill his family. It was not like there were many of them left as it was. Deep down, Cináed had hoped that Raibert would come around. That his uncle would come to embrace him as both a nephew and as his Laird.

Though the burden of responsibility that lay upon his shoulders was tremendous, and though it was true, that he did not always want it, Cináed had done everything in his power to be a good Laird. To be the kind of Laird his father had taught him to be. The kind of Laird, his father, would be proud of.

But his uncle could not let go of his resentments. Raibert was unable to let go of his own desire and ambition to be the clan’s Laird and accept that he would never be that. It broke his heart and filled him with frustration and anger that Raibert would put him in this position. It had been easy to dismiss the rumors of his disloyalty because Cináed had not heard his uncle speak those words himself.

But now he had. He had heard his uncle’s treasonous, poisonous words with his own ears. And it demanded a response. It demanded Cináed do that which he most loathed to do. He had no choice now.

Cináed turned and walked back outside, deciding against water, and feeling like he needed something stronger. Maybe a lot of something stronger.

“Somethin’ does need tae be done, Uncle,” he muttered to himself. “Somethin’ will be done.”

But Cináed decided that it would not be tonight. This night was about his mother, and he did not want to ruin it. But come the morrow, he was going to take action and put a stop to this treason once and for all.

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