Devil's Highlander

Page 1

Prologue

Aberdeen, Spring 1647

“Not the fire again,” Aidan whined.

“Aye, the fire.” Cormac stared defiantly at his twin, linking arms with the girl by his side. Their mothers were out, wanting to experience as much as possible during their weekend visit to the city. It had left the three of them with the run of the house, and they were taking full advantage. “Marjorie wants to.”

“But we always play the Ogilvy fire.”

“I'll have your head,” Cormac shouted, ignoring his brother. He waved his wooden sword with a dramatic flourish.

“I will claim my revenge!”

Aidan narrowed his eyes fiercely. “Why do I have to be Campbell again?” Marjorie stepped forward to peer at his face. “Because your nose is bigger than Cormac's.”

“But we're twins!”

Cormac quickly shrugged. “It's not my fault we don't look alike.”

“I always play the cursed Campbell.” Aidan wiped his nose on his sleeve, a boyish gesture that robbed the menace from his words.

“Revenge shall be mine, I say!” Cormac spun, grabbing Marjorie's hand. A quick jerk of his head loosed his dark brown hair from where it had tangled in his lashes. “Fear not, Lady Ogilvy, I shall save you from the blaze!” Aidan threw his wooden sword to the ground. “Why do you always get to save Marjorie?” Cormac's gaze met Marjorie's, and his chest swelled. He always got to save Marjorie because Marjorie was his.

Marjorie scooped up Aidan's sword, thrusting it back to him hilt-first. “That's just how we play it, Aidan.” A flush of color brightened her face, and Cormac stared. The twins had known her since birth, and in their ten years, only recently had he noticed the pretty blushes that sometimes reddened her cheeks. The phenomenon confused and mesmerized him both.

Shooting Cormac a glance, Marjorie paced to the window, and he wondered if maybe she'd noticed him noticing.

He paused only a moment before following at her heels. Leaning against the windowsill, he let his shoulder graze hers, making as though to study the street below. He inhaled deeply. Lately Marjorie even smelled different. Nice, and sweet, like a lady.

“You boys should climb the chimney,” she said suddenly, “like the sweeps.” They both watched as a handful of chimney boys straggled out from a cart on the street below. The oldest couldn't have been a day over eight, the others seemed closer to five or six, and their brooms and metal tools were almost as large as they were. “My castle is afire, and you'll need to climb to save me.”

“You mean up in the chimney?” Aidan scowled. “I'm not climbing your uncle's stinking chimney.” Cormac swung around, leveling his pretend sword at his twin's chest. “You'll not speak so to the lady.”

“Those boys do it,” she said, pointing out the window.

“You climb the chimney,” Aidan told her in disbelief.

“I'll do no such thing.” She set her shoulders and continued to stare intently out the window. “I shall wait here for my rescue.”

“Aidan,” Cormac warned, “Mum will be back soon. And soon we'll be gone from Aberdeen, and then it's back to home. Don't be so contrary—”

“She's afraid.” Aidan went to the window to study the ragtag boys covered in soot and tar as they disappeared into the neighboring town house. “I should've known a lass would be afraid.”

“I am not afraid.”

“Och, she's not afraid, Aidan. As I recall, she climbed higher than you last time.”

“That was a tree, not up into some stinkin' chimney.” Aidan crossed his arms defiantly. “And I could've gone higher if I'd wanted.”

“It's just that I tore my dress last time.”

“Your family has enough money to buy you twenty new dresses,” Aidan said. “Your mum is with our mum right now, buying you even more.”

“Leave it.” Cormac tried desperately to keep his eyes from said dress. The delicate lace along her neck and sleeves fascinated him. When had she started wearing such ladylike clothes? “Her family has money, but not so much that she can go about mussing her gowns.”

“All right, then.” Marjorie turned, giving them a regal sweep of her eyes. “We shall all climb the stinking chimney.”

“You don't need to, Ree,” Cormac told her quietly, using his private nickname for her. “We'll play something else. Come on, Aidan,” he said more loudly, “let's play at something else.”

“I dare you.” Marjorie set her hands on her hips. “Whoever climbs fastest, wins. Unless it's you boys who are afraid.”

Cormac bristled at once. “I'm not afraid.” He stormed to the fireplace and knelt down to peer up the flue. The boys working as sweeps were small, most no older than eight. But her uncle Humphrey's chimney struck him as overlarge — wide enough to accommodate their bigger bodies. The hearthstones were charred from the years, but the grate was cold, still blanketed with ashes from the previous night's fire.

Not that it mattered. Cormac would climb the tightest of tunnels with a full blaze beneath his feet if it would prove his worth above Aidan's. His eyes darted back to Marjorie. Her full attention was on him, pinning him with an unreadable look. It made him feel like a conquering hero. “I fear nothing,” he repeated, standing tall.

Curling his lip, Aidan waved at the fireplace. “You climb it then, if you're so keen to.” With a decisive nod, Cormac stepped onto the grate, his head and shoulders disappearing into the darkness.

“Cormac,” Marjorie gasped. “You're truly going to climb it?”

“I'm not climbing it,” Aidan said to nobody in particular.

Marjorie craned her neck to look back out the window. “Hurry now. We've not much time before the sweeps come to Uncle's house.”

The inside of the chimney was cool. Staccato gusts of wind whistled in, hitting him with surprisingly fresh bursts of air. Cormac put his hands on the stones. The passage was narrower than it'd looked, and he tried not to think how high it went. Despite the air blowing in, he was unable to see any light shining in from the top.

“What's it like in there?” Marjorie's voice echoed loudly in the cramped space.

Cormac skidded his hands up along the stones, groping for seams that could be used as climbing holds. Soot clung thickly in the mortar and was unexpectedly gummy under his fingertips and nails. “It's sticky!” His fingers found a deep groove between stones. “Here goes,” he muttered, and jumped, pulling himself up hard.

His feet scrabbled wildly in the air. He heard an explosion of hysterical laughter and grunted, “Shut your trap, Aid!”

Cormac began to slip, and he brought his knees up hard to brace himself in the narrow passageway. A sharp ridge cut into his calf, and he hissed with the pain of it. But he was up off the ground now and spared a quick laugh at his success.

He worked silently for a time, his elbows and legs splayed out, slowly maneuvering higher, pushing from his feet and pulling with his hands.

The light from below dimmed, and the sound of breathing echoed up the chamber. “You still in there?” his brother called.

“Move it, stink breath.” Cormac scuffed his toe along the stones, sending old mortar crumbling onto his twin below. “I can't see.”

Aidan chuckled. “When the climbing boys stop their climbing, the master sweep lights a fire to get them going again.”

Marjorie's voice carried up, hollow and distant. “You'll do no such thing!”

“Ow!” Aidan screeched. “Criminy, Marj, I was only joking.”

“It's Marjorie, you beast.”

“That's the way, Ree,” Cormac said. “Now, stop breathing my air,” he growled to his brother. “I think it's getting smaller up here.”

“You getting scared?” Aidan taunted.

“No, I'm not getting — oh!” Cormac's foot slipped, and his elbows scraped hard along the chimney walls as he began to slide down.

Marjorie shrieked.

Slamming his knees out, he braced himself along the passageway to stop his fall.

“That's enough, Cormac,” she cried. “You win! Now just come back down.” He smiled in the darkness. “I best get a good prize for this, Ree.” He flushed as he said it, wondering what exactly he'd meant by the words.

He redoubled his efforts, climbing up at a rapid clip, trying to ignore the way the flue narrowed the higher he went. Hands slide up, fingers hold tight, knees brace the wall… and ups-a-daisy. “I'm getting the way of it now.

Like a wee monkey I am.” Laughing, he grew careless, and his shirtsleeve snagged on the sharp edge of a stone.

“Och, hell.”

“Och, hell, what?” Marjorie sounded nervous.

For once Cormac ignored her. He tried to jiggle his sleeve free, but that only pulled it taut. He was stuck.

Unexpected fear struck like lightning, splicing his chest.

“You answer me right now, Cormac MacAlpin,” Marjorie said sternly.

“Och, hell, what?”

He shimmied his arm up to free it, but only grew more tightly wedged into the passage. His heart kicked hard in his chest. “I… I think I'm stuck.”

Aidan laughed. “You've ate too many pasties from the Aberdeen baker!”

“It's not funny,” Marjorie snapped.

Though their chatter carried to him, it didn't fully pierce his thoughts. He was trapped, and that fact alone filled his head.

“I'm stuck,” he said, and though his voice was brave, he knew his twin would understand the truth of it.

“Aye, I hear you.” There was a clatter from below as Aidan propped the grate onto its side, like an impromptu ladder. “Och, Marjorie, could your uncle no' sweep the bloody hearth?” Aidan was silent then, trying to find his balance. He fell once, then carefully clambered back up to teeter on the top edge of the grate. It plunged Cormac into total blackness. “You get to save Marjorie, but it seems you need me to save you.” His tone was light, but Cormac heard the seriousness underneath. Aidan would help him. They always got each other out of jams.

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