Lord of the Highlands

Page 1


Duncrub Castle, Perchshire, Scotland, 1622

It was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen. Not slight like the ponies of other boys, but braw, with a chest like a great cask of ale, and a coat that shimmered dark gray, like a sword, or the dreadful eye of the Corryvreckan itself, a whirlpool so immense as to draw even the most magnificent of ships to a terrible fate far below.

His pony.

Young Will cradled the oval-shaped currycomb in his palm, gingerly scuffing circles along the animal’s neck and shoulder, even though there wasn’t a speck of dust left to dislodge.

He’d need to choose a name. Something reminiscent of the great heroes of old. Something suitable for kings.

“Don’t think you’re better than me just because Da gave you some old hack.”

Will’s hand froze. Though his heart jolted, he forced himself to stillness. It was best to suffer his older brother’s taunts in silence.

He waited for the inevitable cuff on the shoulder, or along the side of his head, but it didn’t come.

Slowly Will resumed his currying.

“Naggy old swayback old hack.” Jamie was at his shoulder now, singsonging his insults. His voice had just begun to change, and the awkward cracking seemed to enrage the already volatile youth.

Will felt his cheeks redden. He concentrated on the comb, making intent circles, until his pony’s skin shivered.

“Oh, are you going to cry?” Jamie’s hand reached over Will to slap the beast sharply on the neck.

Ears flicking impatiently, the animal gave its tail an abrupt swish.

“Don’t cry, little Willie.”

He stilled. It was his seventh birthday. He’d not see this day ruined like all the others.

“Are you sad I don’t like your wee naggy beast?”

Not this day. It was already so much more special than any he’d known. The most special of his life. His father had woken him early, leading him to the stable at dawn, where his birthday present had been waiting.

“This old hack isn’t that great.” Jamie began to pace a slow circle around them.

Will used the opportunity to slide the halter from his pony’s head, wanting to replace it as quickly as he could with his bridle.

The leather was tacky in his fingers, just polished, and the scent of oil gave a twinge in his nose. The pony took the bit placidly, and Will nearly crumpled with relief. He’d not have to struggle in front of Jamie, and in that moment, he thought surely that he and this animal were destined to be as one. Will eased the straps of the bridle over his ears, thinking it impossible to love an animal more.

“All the lads get their own mounts.” Jamie squatted at the pony’s rear, as if examining the legs. “He’s not so special.”

Anger swelled in Will. His brother dared pretend to inspect his pony, when all knew the boy knew next-to-naught about them.

It was Will who knew horses. Will whom their father had singled out, time and again, for special instruction. See this, Will, this is how to mend a split hoof. See here, Will, how this beast was lamed.

It was Will who’d been given his own pony well before any of the other boys had.

It was time to stand up to his brother’s bullying. He would fight back this time. He would.

Will’s breath came quickly, shallow panting high in his chest. He overturned a bucket and kicked it to rest beneath the stirrups. Taking both reins into his left hand, he relished the feel of supple leather sliding through his fingers. He stepped onto the bucket, placed his foot in the stirrup, and hauled himself over.

His pony made a low chuffing sound and the mass of him felt so right beneath the saddle.

Though there was a quiver in his voice, Will turned his head and said, “You’re just sore Da thinks me the better horseman.” A small smile pursed his lips, pleased at how the words had come out.

The answering silence made him look, finally, at his brother.

Jamie was twelve and the meat on his bones had yet to catch up to the scrawny length of him. Will recognized bits of their Da on his brother’s face, but it was the look their father wore when he was riled. As if the Rollo features had settled sharp and angry onto his brother: the precise nose, but thinner and hooked almost to a point. The edge of cheek and chin turning Jamie’s face gaunt instead of fine.

Exhilaration and fear both spiked in Will’s veins. It was a heady feeling, looking down from the saddle, watching Jamie’s face pale, that mouth sputtering, for once speechless.

His response, when it came, was deathly quiet. “Horseman ? You’re a boy. A baby. Not a horseman.”

Jamie’s hand was swift, darting at the pony’s rump like the lash of a whip.

Will didn’t have a moment to contemplate the jostle of the saddle beneath him before his mount took off with a start, tearing through the stable like a rabid animal.

Jamie’s laughter and the startled whinnies of the other horses flashed like a thunderclap, then were gone as Will’s pony burst out, taking the pasture at a full gallop.

“Whoaa.” His voice was unsteady. Will tugged at the reins, his breath loud in his ears.

“Ho . . .” He pitched his voice low, trying to soothe the animal.

“Ho,” he tried again, and this time he gently snugged his legs tightly around the pony’s belly to settle him. The animal answered with an outraged shriek. It was a hideous sound, a demon sound, not a noise a creature should make at all. The pony squealed again, a possessed thing, baring his teeth, rearing up and down, and up and down, hooves skittering madly at the air.

Will held tight. Leaning forward, he twined his small fingers in the pony’s mane.

He began to slide.

He wound his hands more tightly into the coarse hair. Dirt and leather oil had darkened his nails into black half-moons, and his fingertips began to go blue.

He couldn’t hold on. He needed to let go.

Will released one foot and was ready to leap off, when he realized his left side was caught. His foot had slipped all the way through the stirrup. He wriggled madly, terrified now. The heel of his boot caught.

He’d have to ride it out.

Swinging his free leg back over, he found the right stirrup. Again the pony took off like a bullet.

He saw the rise in the ground before him and tried once more pulling on the reins. Will leaned back hard now, using the whole of his small body to coax the animal to slow, to stop.

The pony shrieked again, and Will’s skin crawled. He realized it was his shifting weight that caused the pony’s cries. What had Jamie done? He remembered his brother jostling the saddle just before the pony went mad.

Carefully, he reached back. His hand fumbled along the hard stretch of leather while his eyes remained pinned on the hill before him.

The small scree-covered slope grew closer by the second. Before, it was an innocent thing, and now it loomed, threatening.

Will’s fingers gingerly probed along the back of the saddle, down to the pony’s coat, now slicked warm and wet with sweat. He pulled his hand back. A thin smear of blood stained his fingertips brownish red.

Jamie. Curse him.

It would be the last rational thought Will had for some time.

His pony reached the rise. He reeled away in last-minute panic to careen along the base of the hill. But not before the hooves on his right side hit gravel, slid. Still galloping, the beast faltered.

Will wriggled, his terror at fever pitch, trying desperately to dislodge his trapped left foot.

The pony fell, rolling onto his right side. Will heard the sound of his leg being crushed. An all-consuming pain blanketed him. Smashed him.

He felt his left calf bone snap, his foot finally loose.

In an unnatural, awkward movement, the pony heaved back up and charged away.

Leaving Will lying there. Broken. On his seventh birthday.

Chapter 1

San Francisco, present day

“Jerk!” Felicity slammed her sangria onto the table, sending her bangles clattering to her wrists. “Evil, nasty, two- timing jerk.”

“I warned you about Scorpios,” her Aunt Livia said. “They’ll sweet talk you, then turn around and sting.” She pulled an orange slice from her glass and snapped a bite from it to underscore her point.

“Do you realize he actually called himself a feminist?”

“No!” Livia grimaced. “Put a man in a protest march and all of a sudden he’s freaking Gandhi.” Her aunt nodded sagely, tucking her long, unnaturally red hair back behind her ears. “I met the same in my day. Trust me, sweetheart, I’m much happier living in my little cottage all by my lonesome.”

“But, Livvie . . .” Felicity deflated. “I love your place, but I’m sorry, I just can’t give it all up and live in a canyon somewhere with a bunch of coyotes.”

“I’ve only had trouble with the one coyote, and my little cottage was good enough for you when you came to live there as a child.”

Felicity picked a big, green olive from her plate, taking a moment to think. The last thing she wanted to do was inadvertently offend her aunt. Livia had taken her in when Felicity’s parents died in a car accident, and her aunt’s eccentric lifestyle had been what pulled young Felicity through her grief.

“I’m sorry, Livvie. Your place was, is wonderful, but I’m not eight anymore.”

“Would that you were.” Livia looked around the tapas joint. It was in San Francisco’s Mission District, and it was packed with the gamut of city dwellers: the pierced and the straitlaced, nonnative speakers mingling with middle America. “I do without you for a whole year so you can see the world, and then you move all the way out here. I hate having to come all this way just to see you.”

“I was only in Central America, it was only nine months, and it was your idea, as I recall. Anyway, your trips to San Francisco would go much faster if you flew instead of insisting on the bus.”

Livia ignored the jibe. “I see why the city beckons, sweetheart, but I wish you were back where you belong.”

“I belong here,” Felicity said. “And it’s not as though you’re living on holy ground. I mean, come on, Livvie, you’re in LA.”

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