About the book
Three-hundred years into the past, she found him…
When a gypsy hands her a medallion at a fair, Diana Huntington thinks it nothing but a trinket. Until the moment it transports her back in time and straight into the arms of a very bewildered, very handsome Highlander.
With his clan on the brink of destruction, Gordain Boyd has to find the necessary funds to save his castle. When a strange Englishwoman comes to him with an earth-shattering revelation, he strikes up a deal in order to keep her secret. There is only one problem: what he really wants to keep is her.
Diana’s imminent return to the future is not the only thorn in their side. Amongst escalating unrest caused by the passing of Gordain’s father, a rumor arises that demands her death at the stake. With the clock ticking, Diana is asked to make the ultimate choice: return to her original time or watch Gordain perish.
Ballachulish, Scotland, 1928
Diana followed her little sister through the fair, the lights and bright colors, amazed once more at how excitable she could be. At the moment, her eyes were glued to the vast array of colorful horses rotating slowly in a wave on the merry-go-round.
“Di, look! They have a carousel!” Grace exclaimed as she looked around with childish glee.
Diana shook her head fondly. She looked at the fair surrounding her and her wonder went up a notch.
Beautiful though the tiny village of Ballachulish and the surrounding area were, they were as far removed from civilization as she could imagine; and she had visited some strange places in her lifetime, usually linked with her studies at the University of London.
Their annual holiday for this year took the small group to the Scottish Highlands. Diana hoped to see some of the landscapes featured in an art exhibition on Scottish painters that she had so much admired at University.
“Di, let’s go!” her sister urged again and this time grabbed her hand.
“All right, all right! Stop pulling, Grace!”
Honestly, sometimes Diana was not sure if Grace was eighteen or eight years old. The detour to this particular fair had been entirely her idea. They had spent the last few weeks traipsing the wilds of Scotland along with a few friends and this was not the first time she had prompted an additional stop with her enthusiasm.
Louisa and Peggy, her friends, were surprisingly indulgent. Even now, Diana could see Louisa looking over at her with a raised eyebrow and an amused smirk, certain that Diana would oblige her little sister. Diana rolled her eyes and caved.
“We’ll meet you at the food area!” she called out with a laugh as her friends disappeared behind the crowd.
They quickly reached the carousel and joined the queue after paying the fee. Diana pulled her purse a little closer, remembering the grubby man’s greedy look at the sight of the money inside. She shuddered and glanced around.
Several beggars stood in her line of sight. Filthy and unkempt, they ambled through the crowd with outstretched arms. Diana moved closer to her sister.
“I think I want that one,” Grace interrupted her musings, pointing to one of the horses.
Diana squinted at the spinning carousel. “The white one with the flowers on its mane?” she asked. She looked away a moment later, dizzy.
“No, next to it. The beautiful bay with the braid in its tail,” Grace said. Diana looked back, spotting the one she was talking about.
Eyeing the pretty floral outfit her sister had put on after breakfast, Diana teased, “I see it. How are you going to climb on that thing? It’s enormous and you’re in a dress.”
In fact, all four of them dressed in similar dresses, the only difference being the color. It had been one of the first things they bought when they were in Edinburgh. Grace’s dress was a soft yellow, a perfect counterbalance to Diana’s darker blue.
“It’s not as large as Captain,” her sister said dismissively. Diana’s eyes widened. Captain was their father’s black stallion.
“Captain? When did you ride Dad’s horse?”
Grace looked sheepish at what she had let slip.
“Well, Hazel threw a shoe and I really wanted to take a ride and—”
“Wait…Hazel?” The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t immediately place it. When she did, her eyes widened. “Didn’t Dad sell her a few years ago?”
Grace bit her lip and Diana sighed. It was just like her sister to do something so reckless.
“You could have been killed.”
“Well, it was years ago and nothing happened, so I know I can get onto that horse if I want to,” Grace said and crossed her arms.
Diana sighed. Sometimes she forgot how young Grace was. She was ten years her junior: born just before the Great War, and spoiled most of her life by their parents and the staff at their house.
“If you say so, but I would remind you that there won’t be a stable hand or a convenient hay bale available to help you here,” Diana teased.
Grace opened her mouth to retort but diverted her attention to the man walking up to them.
He had dark, greasy hair and his face and clothes were grimy. There was a hole in the knee of his trousers that were liberally streaked with mud. “Any change to spare?” he asked, holding out an upside-down cap that already had a few coins in it.
Diana shrunk backward, the unwashed man too close for her comfort.
“No, sorry,” she said quickly and turned away.
It was finally their turn to ride the carousel. She was amused to note that Grace opted for a much more reasonably sized horse than the one she had pointed out earlier.
Diana carefully sat sideways on her own horse and pushed a lock of her hair behind her ears. It was barely long enough to stay in place and not even her hat was enough to keep her blonde curls back.
A few moments later, that large machine rolled to life in a steady whirl of color and music.
From the slightly elevated position, she had a better view of the fairgrounds and was surprised to see just how large it was. A large tent pitched near the middle was most likely where the dancing was, and dozens of smaller ones surrounded it. Diana thought she saw another ride behind the large tent, but she wasn’t certain.
She couldn’t wait to explore.
When the ride was over, she and Grace wandered through the fair, trying to find their friends. The variety of entertainment was staggering. All around them were vendors trying to sell their wares, acrobats performing tricks in corners, games of chance, dancers… Diana suspected their stay would extend more than the one night they had initially planned.
“Grace! Diana! Over here!”
Louisa waved them over. She and Peggy were sitting at a table with paper cups set in front of them. Diana and Grace hurried over.
“What do you have there?” Diana asked as she sniffed at one of the cups.
“Whisky!” Peggy exclaimed happily, sipping out of her own cup.
Diana took a tentative sip and her eyes widened. “Good whisky,” she corrected, then took a larger sip and sighed contentedly. “Did you find anything interesting?”
“There’s dancing in the main tent later,” Louisa said happily. “Though I’m not sure if it will be jazz or Scottish. It should be fun either way.”
Diana nodded, thinking that she would most definitely enjoy a good dance.
“That sounds nice. I was also thinking that we might want to extend our stay by a couple of nights,” she said.
The other girls nodded and she continued expanding on her plan.
“We can enjoy the fair today and tomorrow and leave the next morning. There’s certainly enough to do here for a couple of days. And as much as I have enjoyed our trip, I am getting tired being in the automobile so much.”
The automobile was a fabulous invention, but after three weeks of driving over bumpy country roads, the experience had lost a lot of its previous charm.
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” Peggy sighed. “But what about Inverness?”
“We still have a few days before we need to be there to meet Martha and Elsie,” Diana said. “It shouldn’t be a problem. So, we all agree?”
They all looked around at each other, nodded, and then dissolved into giggles.
“I want to look at the shops,” Louisa said. “We saw so many interesting things earlier, and I want a closer look!”
“Me too,” Grace said and together they stood and made their way to the nearest tent.
Diana supposed that the protection from the elements was useful on rainy days. Since they had arrived in Scotland, there had been quite a few and she could understand the necessity of such protection. A table filled with small metal trinkets sat right outside the tent flap.
“Are ye wantin’ something pretty, lass?” the vendor asked from behind the counter.
He wore traditional Scottish garb. Diana looked it over critically. His kilt was short, over the knee like one of the short kilts favored later in history, but it was belted and draped over his shoulder like one of the earlier great kilts.
She frowned at the discrepancy but dismissed it. In her experience, most people did not want to hear it when they made a mistake. It had gotten her in trouble more than once in the past.
She smiled at him instead and moved closer to look at one of the brooches. Further back, she could see several strings of pearls. She pointed at them.
“Can I see those, please?” she asked, and he brought them closer.
“Freshwater pearls from the Highlands. You have a good eye, lass,” he praised.
They truly were beautiful. She gently touched a pearl. They were very smooth and would go beautifully well with the dresses she had brought with her for dancing.
“That one please,” she pointed at one of the longer strands and the man smiled and turned to package the necklace.
While she waited, she looked around at the people surrounding her. A puppet theatre was set up not too far away with a gaggle of children sitting giggling around it. A gypsy wearing a bright-colored turban was seated on a stool outside of a nearby tent, smoking a pipe not far from a young woman in a pale-pink dress arguing with a shop owner about prices. It was a fascinating collection of characters.
“Get out of me way, ye wee bastard,” a loud voice said, followed by the pained cry of a child, and she instinctively turned to look in that direction.
A man stood over a small boy sprawled on the dusty ground with his hands pressed over his belly with a grimace of pain. Diana thought that the man must have kicked him hard enough to knock him over.
He can’t be any older than three or four years old.
Diana’s heart clenched. The little boy was thin as a rail with wide dark eyes filled with tears. He wore the same dirty clothes that she had noticed on many of the beggars since they arrived.
The man scoffed and moved away, leaving the boy on the ground.
Diana quickly pulled a large note out of her bag and moved closer to him.
“Hey,” she said and was dismayed when he ducked his head as if expecting a blow. “I won’t hurt you,” she reassured him. Up close, the little boy’s eyes were a dark blue.
She smiled at him and helped him up.
“Thank ye, mum,” he said.
“Here,” Diana said and handed him the note, “it’s for you.”
His eyes widened when he saw what was in his hand.
“I insist,” Diana said firmly and closed his hand around it.
He launched himself at her and planted a loud, childish kiss on her cheek.
“Thank ye. Thank ye so much!” he said and then scampered off.
Diana shook her head at his antics, but inside she was devastated at what she had witnessed. There was never a good reason to treat a child so callously.
“Looks like you have an admirer,” Louisa said drily from behind her.
“He’s sweet,” she replied, her eyes tracing the path the little one had taken and then she turned back around to the vendor to pay for her pearls.
Diana could feel eyes watching her as she made her purchase, but she couldn’t see anyone when she turned around.
They spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the various displays. Grace was quickly enamored by the sweets display and spent a hefty amount of money there while Peggy spent a fair amount of time looking at the available clothing for sale.
Diana went from counter to counter, looking at the available wares but did not buy anything else. The feeling that she was being watched stayed with her for the rest of the afternoon, but every time she turned around, she could not spot anyone looking her way.
She was looking at seashell decorations when she felt a frisson of unease. She turned around, her eyes meeting those of the gypsy she had noticed earlier. Her bright-yellow turban seemed even more garish up close.
“Would ye like to know yer future? Esmeralda knows all and will show ye the right path,” she said.
Diana looked at the short woman dressed in plain, but clean clothing – and the turban. Her hair was hidden inside her turban, but Diana thought it might be as dark as her eyebrows. Her large eyes were a pale grey, heavily accented with a bright-blue eye shadow and pierced through Diana with an intense look.
She shivered. She did not believe in fortunetelling and magic, but the woman was eerie.
“No, thank you,” she said and moved away.
A couple of hours later, the girls were exhausted and their purses were noticeable lighter as they headed to the main tent to rest and enjoy the music. Louisa brought over drinks while Peggy and Grace joined the dancers.
Diana was happy that they were playing jazz music rather than the Scottish songs she had been expecting. They hadn’t enjoyed much dancing while they were on the road as opportunities to join in parties were few and far between. Truthfully, she missed it. Back home in London, she regularly attended several parties per week, something they hadn’t been able to do while touring Scotland. Her mood lifted as she listened to the familiar rhythm, feet lightly tapping with the beat.
“Di, come on!” Grace urged, skirts swishing around her knees at her movement, and she beckoned her sister over. Diana drained her drink and joined the fun with a smile.
Several dances and a couple of drinks more later, the girls were once more making their way across the fairgrounds in the opposite direction. Louisa was supporting Peggy, who was wobbling on her heels and Grace was giggling madly at the sight.
Night had fallen, the moon casting long shadows as they meandered through the dark tents, and Diana lingered slightly behind the rest, slowly observing the stars above.
“I see yer fate clearly in the stars, lass.”
It was the gypsy from earlier. She stood in front of a tent still lit from the inside. Diana could see a table with two chairs and realized that it must be where the old woman practiced her trade. In the moonlight, the woman was even more uncanny than she had been earlier.
“Won’t ye let me read yer palm? Like I told ye earlier, Esmeralda knows the right path for ye.”
Diana hesitated, feeling uneasy.
What harm can it do?
She trembled, a feeling of foreboding coming over her at the expectant look the gypsy was giving her. She shook her head, admonishing herself for being silly.
It was all in good fun, after all. Fortunetelling wasn’t real.
“All right,” she said, and the gypsy smiled, revealing a gold tooth. She turned and hurried inside, seating herself on one of the available chairs.
Diana looked ahead for her sister and friends but couldn’t see them. Deciding that she would catch up with them at the hotel, she ducked her head through the flap and followed the older woman into the dimly lit tent.
After all, what did she have to lose?
The eeriness Diana had detected earlier permeated the entire tent. She noticed several glimmering rocks set on a counter next to a mortar and pestle, and an old-fashioned tea kettle set on a tiny end table. The gypsy sat at a table ringed with symbols that Diana didn’t recognize.
A cold frisson skirted up her back. There was nothing particularly unusual about the tent, but Diana felt deeply uneasy sitting there.
Across from her, the gypsy closed her eyes and was humming slightly as she rocked back and forth. Diana coughed slightly at the lingering smell of pipe tobacco, and the older woman opened one eye to glare balefully at her. She raised her arms apologetically and the gypsy resumed her humming.
As time passed, and the humming turned into an indistinguishable muttering, Diana was starting to regret coming into the tent. The whole thing was the ridiculous charade she had been expecting.
The gypsy’s eyes snapped open.
“Now, Esmeralda will tell ye yer fortune,” she said, startling Diana at how business like she sounded compared to the show she had been putting on for the past few minutes.
“Yer palm, lass,” she demanded.
Diana extended her hand reluctantly with her palm facing up. The gypsy grabbed it with both her own hands, carefully tracing the lines on her palm intently. Diana shuddered in disgust at the older woman’s clammy hands. Suddenly, the gypsy paled, her eyes widen. She released Diana’s hand and stood so quickly that the chair she had been sitting on clattered to the floor behind her, startling Diana, who pressed a hand to her chest in fright.
“Perhaps I was mistaken. I dinnae see anything in yer palm, lass. Ye should get going,” the gypsy said and tried to usher Diana toward the exit.
Bewildered, Diana sat in her seat, unmoved by the smaller woman’s efforts. What had she seen in her palm that disconcerted her so much?
Fear gripped her and she pulled the older woman to her by the hands.
“What is it? What did you see?” she asked, desperate to know. She swallowed heavily through her suddenly dry throat.
Diana would have been suspicious of the gypsy attempting to con her under normal circumstances, but the fear Diana could see in her eyes was all too real. Whatever put that look in the older woman’s eyes seemed like a good reason to panic.
The gypsy seemed reluctant to speak.
“Tell me,” Diana urged, the fear gripping her belly growing the longer the gypsy refused to speak.
Hesitantly, Esmeralda picked up her chair, sat in front of Diana and motioned wordlessly for her hand. Again, the gypsy traced the lines in her hand with a wide-eyed look of astonishment. After several minutes of silence, Diana no longer knew what to think.
The icy ball of fear in her stomach had eased somewhat when nothing horrible immediately happened, but Diana could not stop the sense of foreboding from slowly swallowing her.
What could possibly be so horrible? When Esmeralda finally spoke, her voice was trembling.
“I have only see a hand like yers once before and it is not a happy tale, lass. Look here.” She pointed to the middle of her palm. “Ye will travel far, but not at all. Many years ye will wander, and yet ye will be trapped.”
The older woman hesitated and looked Diana in the eye.
“I see many people in yer future. Here, ye will find a man unlike any ye have met before and many new friends in yer travels.”
That doesn’t sound too bad.
Traveling and meeting new people was one of her favorite things to do. Somehow, she didn’t think that the fortuneteller would stop at that happy thought.
“I see danger in yer palm. Ye must learn to appreciate yer man. He will be yer greatest support, but only if ye allow yerself to see beyond what blinds ye. If ye do not, ye will both be in grave peril from those ye call friend.”
“Grave peril?” Diana managed to squeak. “What do you mean?”
The gypsy’s eyes now fixed on Diana’s, seemingly looking at her and through her simultaneously, reaching inside her and reading her soul. Diana was conscious of her hands trembling.
When she finally responded, the gypsy’s eyes were serious.
“It means that someone will try to kill ye both, lass.”
Diana stood so quickly that her chair fell over, breathing hard, the same ominous feeling now in the forefront of her mind.
“You’re a liar. I don’t believe a word you’re telling me!” she yelled at the gypsy. The older woman seemed to be coming out of a trance as she stared at Diana.
“This I have seen, child. Ye cannae change the future to suit ye.”
Diana scoffed, although inside, her stomach was in knots.
“What a load of crock. Do you try to sell this sort of things to all the people you tell their fortune to?” Diana’s heart was pounding. It wasn’t true; she was lying to make money. That had to be it. It wasn’t true.
“Watch yer tongue, lass. Ye will not like the results if ye dinnae stop talking,” the old woman warned in a severe voice.
“You can’t do anything. You’re a fraud and I refuse to have anything to do with your lies,” Diana said and turned to leave. She needed to find her sister and return to the hotel as soon as possible.
“Have ye forgotten something, lass?” the gypsy asked from behind her in a frosty tone. Diana turned her head to look at her. “My payment?”
“Payment? For what? Lies? I have no reason to reward you for that.”
Esmeralda stiffened at her tone.
For one timeless moment, neither woman moved. Diana stood an arm’s length away from the entrance of the tent with her head turned to look at the gypsy who was staring at her with an unreadable look.
As Diana looked at her, she seemed to loom large in the confined space. The gypsy muttered a string of incomprehensible words that Diana thought might be Gaelic.
“Thig an àm ri teachd agad gu buil gus leasan a theagasg dhut, agus bidh mi ann airson breithneachadh.”
She could not make out the meaning of the words, and yet it was obvious that to her that it was a sentence — albeit one that she could not understand. A gust of cold wind passed around the tent, seeping through the flaps the moment she stopped speaking. An ominous rush of sound echoed all around them, and somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled.
Diana stood frozen at the chilling sound. What had just happened?
Before she could register what was happening, the gypsy was in front of her, tugging at her arm.
“It’s all right, lass. Ye don’t have to believe me, just come back for a moment.”
Wary that the woman was trying to con her again, Diana nodded and let herself be pulled back to the center of the tent. The gypsy released her.
“Wait here. Esmeralda has something for ye.”
When Diana nodded, confirming that she would wait, the older woman released her and moved to the shadowy corner in the back of the tent. There was a trunk there that she hadn’t noticed earlier.
Diana still felt like a raw ball of nerves, her mind unable to process everything happening. Her fate sounded like something out of an Ancient Greek Tragedy.
The gypsy rummaged through the items in the trunk for a moment, almost folding herself in half to reach something in the bottom and emerged with a triumphant sound, holding a small pouch.
She approached Diana and handed it to her.
“A gift,” was all she said as she indicated that Diana should open it.
She released the drawstring with clumsy fingers and a racing heart, and then reached inside and pulled out a necklace of some sort.
No, not a necklace, she realized when she got a better look. A medallion. Sitting in the middle of a silver chain was an oddly shaped flat disk with a single blue gem sitting in the middle.
She traced the edges of the shape. It had six sides, none of them equal. It was almost as if someone had cut out a triangle from a pentagon without caring if the lines were straight when they did so.
It was beautiful, and Diana felt like it was thrumming with energy in her hand. Alarmed, she looked back at the woman.
“Thank you, but I cannot accept this. I already wear my mother’s necklace you see,” she said, touching the blue stone set in the middle of the heart pendant around her neck. She also did not want to put on the strange medallion but thought it prudent not to say as much. “She gave it to me before she died.”
“Ye must have it,” Esmeralda insisted. “It is an insult to refuse a gift,” she added with a severe look at Diana.
“All right. Thank you,” Diana replied hastily and pulled back her hand. The older woman already seemed angry at her. There was no reason to provoke her further. “Will you tell me about it? It is such an unusual shape.”
The gypsy smiled, showing off her gold tooth again.
“What ye hold in yer hand has been in my family for many centuries. More than six hundred years it has passed from mother to daughter. And now it comes to ye.”
Diana looked at the medallion in shock. If what she was saying was true, the medallion she held was priceless. The historian inside her longed for the library. She would be able to compare it against other items from the era and narrow down its origins.
“This is a very generous gift. Are you sure you want to give me this? It sounds like a family heirloom and I would hate to take that away from your daughter.”
The gypsy eyed her with interest.
“Och, lass. I have no family left. When I die, the secret of that medallion will die with me.”
“What secret?” Diana asked warily. The energy that she could still feel coming from the medallion clutched in her fingers scared her. She wasn’t sure what it meant.
The gypsy leaned in closer, and when she spoke, her voice was low.
“It will help ye meet yer destiny.” At Diana’s incredulous look, she continued. “I see that ye do not believe me, but ye will. Ye will.”
Her eyes were unfocused for a moment before she looked Diana straight in the eye.
“Take the medallion to the cave hidden behind the elderberries. The one that is hidden in the green valley and guarded by the swan and the bear. Look for the spot where the medallion fits and when ye find it, wait for the exact moment the sun appears in the horizon before placing it. This will unlock yer fate.”
Diana looked at her incredulously, her green eyes wide.
“Ye will not regret it if you do. This I can promise,” the gypsy said.
Diana could sense that she was being dismissed. She thanked the woman and hastily made her way out of the tent into the cool night air, deciding never to use the medallion.
She walked through the quiet camp in turmoil. The whirlwind of emotions that she had experienced in the tent still affecting her. What had the woman meant? She would travel, but not? And time would pass, but she would be trapped.
What does it all mean?
Worst of all, if the gypsy was to be believed, someone would try to kill her. A ripple of dread flowed through her as she shook herself out of it.
It’s all nonsense, she decided, I don’t believe any of it.
She was a well-educated woman and refused to be frightened by some fortuneteller who only wanted to scare her.
Then why did the woman’s words ring with a truth she was loath to acknowledge? Diana pulled her arms closer to ward off the chill and walked quickly toward the hotel.
“Di!” her sister’s voice called to her as she approached the hotel. “Louisa, she’s here!” she called out.
Moments later, Louisa and Peggy surrounded them.
“What happened? You just disappeared,” Grace asked her. Her blonde hair, similar to Diana’s own curls, was sticking up oddly on one side. It was a mark of how anxious her sister was that she had not bothered to fix it. Normally, Grace was very careful with her appearance.
“I’m sorry,” Diana said. “I was distracted by one of the booths. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
She wasn’t sure why she had lied. She just felt like they wouldn’t understand if she tried to explain what had occurred in the fortuneteller’s tent.
She would do it the next morning, she decided. Maybe in the light of day, it would be less sinister and funnier. She allowed herself to be pulled back to their room, listening to her sister and friends’ chattering. She quickly changed and laid down, exhausted from the long day.
Only sleep wouldn’t come. The old woman’s words echoed around her head over and over as she twisted restlessly in her sheets.
“It will unlock yer destiny,” the gypsy had said, but was that a good thing? There were many negative things in the destiny she had described.
Someone will try to kill me, but it also sounds like I will travel and meet many new people.
Her thoughts went round and round in circles all night. When the sky outside her window started lightening from black to a deep blue, she knew she was out of time. If what the gypsy said was correct, she needed to be in the cave at dawn to unlock her supposed fate.
I can at least go see if the cave exists.
Decision made, she got up silently and changed into her favorite blue dress. She left a note for her sleeping sister on her way out and hurriedly dashed out of the hotel. The sky above her was even lighter, and she quickened her steps. She only had a few minutes before dawn.
She was now practically sprinting across the fairgrounds, evading a couple of early morning vendors on the way. The main tent loomed large in the distance, and she quickly ran around to the back of it.
Behind the tent was a long valley with hilled slopes as far as the eye could see. It was the same beautiful landscape that had surrounded them for hours as they drove toward Ballachulish. Bright green forest as far as the eye could see with imposing mountains, their peaks bare from the harsh winds in the backdrop.
Elderberries, she reminded herself, look for the elderberries.
She frantically searched for the bushy trees where the small, dark berries grew, but it was hard to do so in the dim light. As she wandered further and further from the fair, walking up the green covered hills, she resigned herself to not being able to find them when she spotted it.
A lone elderberry tree, nearly hidden behind a copse of pines.
Elated at her discovery, she rushed to it and started looking for the entrance of the cave. She pushed away at the dense foliage, the branches scratching her arms lightly until she saw the dark crack in the rock behind it. Without hesitating, she walked through the square opening and into a dark, cavernous space. The temperature dropped. Fear was crawling up her back again, but she was determined to see it through.
She looked around her. The dark space was dimly lit, the far corners lost in shadows. She wondered how she was supposed to find the place to put the medallion in the gloom.
She shuffled forward carefully, her feet sliding a little on the lichen-covered floors. Her right shoe caught on an uneven rock making her lurch slightly, quickly compensating to save her balance. She placed her hand on the wall, cringing at the damp wetness of it, and started tracing her fingers over it.
It was nearly impossible to do in the dark, and she cursed herself mentally for not thinking to bring a torch.
It was a slow process. The cave was old, and its walls pitted with small holes and imperfections. After a while, Diana realized that she was feeling the remains of an ancient wall, stone upon stone holding the structure up.
Finally, her fingers stumbled on a hole that was slightly sharper than the rest. She traced the outline in the wall that precisely matched the medallion she held in her hand with amazement. She had not truly expected to find it there.
She heard a rush of whispers echoing from the walls around her.
“Hello? Is someone there?” she called out. Silence.
It must have been my imagination.
She lifted the medallion closer to the hole. A ringing bell broke through the silence.
It was the same ominous ringing she had heard the previous evening in the tent. She ignored it and pushed the medallion into its slot. Whispers joined the ringing as the wind whipped around her faster and faster.
She cried out and then she gave in to the darkness and the voices surrounding her.
Ballachulish, Scotland, 1653
“Thank ye, good sir, for yer business,” the trader said with an obsequious little bow.
Gordain was disgusted, even as he bowed slightly in farewell, mounting his horse. If his clan had not been in such dire straits, he would have never approached that toad.
Yet, he had no choice. The last two winters had been harsh, and their tenants had lost more than one crop to the frost. The entire clan was suffering. His father, soft-hearted Laird that he was, had declared that they would only be collecting a fraction of the rents again that year.
Gordain knew that besides the much smaller income that was to be expected that year, his father was likely to make further exceptions to anyone who visited the Castle to request aid.
It was insanity, and if something didn’t change, they would soon not be able to put food on their own table, let alone protect the Clan.
Gordain shook his head to dispel the angry thoughts. He and his father had had that particular argument many times in the past. It always ended with one of the two – usually Gordain – storming out of the room.
It’s like he wants us to lose the Clan’s support.
He had resorted to visiting the nearby markets and selling their jewelry little by little to cover their debts. This time, it had been his grandmother’s jeweled brooch and his heart had hurt when he handed it over.
He was determined to do it, though. The alternative his father had proposed was unthinkable. He would not wed Mary McKinnon, no matter how large a dowry she possessed. He would rather squander every last bit of their fortune before he would tie himself to that bitter harpy.
So lost was he in his thoughts about his distaste in his father’s choice in brides, that he almost rode right past her.
She stood with her back pressed to a tree, barefoot, wearing nothing but a blue shift, unlike any shift that Gordain had ever seen before. The material looked impossibly soft, and it clung to her every curve exposing her shoulders and leaving her knees bare in an almost indecent way. A ribbon was slung low around her hips ending in a bow on the one side.
And what curves they were. His hands itched to hold her by the dip of her waist as he caressed her. He flushed at the thought and diverted his gaze and thoughts away from her body.
His eyes went to her face. Her blonde hair was pulled back, a few strands framing her face, and her eyes were as green as the grass on the hills surrounding them. She had a gold chain around her slender throat, ending in a gold heart with an odd light-blue gem on it.
She was exquisite as she was an enigma. Gordain had never seen such a beautiful woman in his entire life. Nor had he ever seen such attire on any woman of his acquaintance.
His mind was so bent on the beautiful creature in front of him that he almost didn’t notice the three men harassing her.
“Ye’re a bonnie lass,” the first one said, reaching out to caress her arm.
“What are ye doing out here all alone, bonnie?” the other asked, closing in on her other side.
Gordain could see that they each had a knife on their belts, but no sword. They had most likely left them with their horses. He shook his head at their carelessness. Well, he would definitely use it to his advantage.
The woman was pushing herself further into the tree. She was whimpering and shrinking away from their grasping hands.
He frowned, anger surging through him, hot and potent. A woman like that should not have to deal with the likes of them. Thankful that he had spotted them from a distance, he quickly decided on a plan. He dismounted his horse as quietly as he could and tied the reins to a nearby tree.
He pulled out his sword and crept quietly through the brush, moving slowly behind them. Years of tracking and training made him sure of his footing. He would not be heard.
“Perhaps the lassie is looking for some company gents. Are ye, Lass? I can show ye a good time,” the third of the men leered at her suggestively. The other two chuckled ominously.
Gordain seethed with rage, feeling powerless at not being able to do anything from his position. He needed to get around them and closer before revealing himself; otherwise, they would be able to harm her. Or him.
“I get first crack at her,” the first one said gleefully. Gordain thought he might be the leader of the group. He sniffed derisively at the crude words.
He would never understand the actions of some men. There were plenty of available girls who would be more than willing to bed them, yet they searched out the ones who did not wish for their company.
He moved slowly, silently. He was nearly in position when he heard her scream. He looked up and noticed that the leader had a hand on one of her breasts while she squirmed and screeched in protest.
The scream cut off abruptly as the brigand placed his dirk on her throat. He could see from where he stood frozen a single drop of dark blood roll down her neck from the shallow wound the knife had caused and into the bodice of her shift, staining it.
He saw red. The next thing he knew he was running across the clearing with a fierce battle cry, sword raised high. The men all turned to look at him as the girl crumpled to the ground.
He was on their leader before he could react. The man’s dirk was no match for his sword. He parried it aside, hitting the brigand’s hand with the flat of his sword.
The man shouted in pain, dropping his weapon. Gordain didn’t waste time. He ran the man through the chest with his sword, dropping him to the ground instantly, dead. He pulled back his sword, turning to the other two men, roaring in challenge.
They were backing up slowly, empty hands raised in front of them.
“Please, we didnae ken she was yer woman,” one of them begged. Gordain frowned. He could not attack unarmed men, yet this scum deserved anything he gave them to attack a defenseless woman and cause her fright and pain.
He lowered his sword and leveled each of them with a menacing look. They turned tail and scampered off.
He knew they didn’t have much time. For all he knew, the men were part of a larger group waiting for them nearby and would return to avenge their fallen friend.
He did not want to wait there to be discovered.
He walked to her quickly. As he approached, he noticed that while he had originally thought her hair was pulled back, it was actually cut very short, perhaps just below her ears. Gordain thought it might be shorter than his own.
He knelt in front of her, thinking she might be the most unusual woman he had ever seen.
“Lass, we need to go,” he said gently. He pulled at her arm, but she did not respond. She sat on the ground with unfocused eyes, her breath wheezing through her chest. He sighed.
“Come on. They willnae stay away for long. We need to move,” he tried again. She looked up at him and stared with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
“Do ye no understand me?”
Still, she did not answer. A foreigner then. Or perhaps she was dim.
He sighed. Well, there was no helping it. He scooped her off the ground and over his shoulder, walking briskly to his horse. She yelped, but otherwise made no protest to his manhandling her.
He noticed her shift moved even higher up her leg when he pushed her up on the front of the saddle. Again, he was struck by the need to touch her and resisted. He would be no better than the men he had just left in the clearing if he did.
He jumped into the saddle behind her and set his horse to a brisk gallop. He would need to get on Clan lands as soon as possible. Hopefully, before the brigands caught up with them again and tried something anew.
He felt her shivering against him and cursed inwardly. The morning was cool and she was not dressed well enough to keep out the chill. Unfortunately, it would have to wait. He couldn’t risk stopping yet, but hopefully, the warmth from his own body would help.
“I’m sorry, Lass, but we need to get ye to safety,” he told her, certain that even if she could not understand him, the tone of voice would soothe her.
He continued speaking nonsense to her as they rode along, yet she never once responded.
Perhaps she is simple, after all.
Even if she were a foreigner, she would have tried to communicate with him by that point. Yet she never made a peep. And then there was her strange clothing.
It would make sense if she were simple to be walking around in what was essentially little more than undergarments. She must have escaped the person who had cared for her.
It was nearly an hour later that they reached the boundary line of their lands. He sighed in relief at the sight of the familiar creek. They would still need another day before they reached the Castle, but he felt safe enough to stop and rest for a while.
He drew back the reins gently, pulling his horse to a stop and dismounted. He helped her down from the horse as well.
He approached the creek and drank deeply from the crisp water. When he stood back up, she was standing beside him.
For the first time since he saw her in the clearing, she looked directly at him with unclouded eyes, and he noticed again how green they were, almost like fresh shoots in a garden.
“Thank you,” she said in a clear, high voice, “for saving my life earlier.”
Her accent took him aback.
An English lass? What is she doing in these parts alone?
“Ye’re welcome,” he said simply, though curiosity burned through him. Who was she?
“Where… where are we?” she asked.
“Ye’re safe now. We’re on the lands of the Sutherford Clan,” he reassured her.
“The Sutherford Clan?” She asked the question carefully as if she had never heard of such a thing before.
She still looked confused for a moment, but then she shook her head. Gordain could almost see her mind working and figured that she had come to a decision of some kind.
“Can you take me back to the fair in Ballachulish, please? My friends are there.”
His brows furrowed in confusion.
“What fair, lass? There isnae a fair in Ballachulish right this moment.”
“What are you talking about? I was just there last night. There was dancing and food and…and the gypsies were there,” she said, getting more agitated with every second she spoke. Her eyes were starting to shine with tears.
He was confused in turn. What she was describing was impossible.
“The gypsies? The gypsies willnae be here for another few weeks, lass.”
She looked at him with wide eyes and an open mouth.
Is she lying?
He could not figure her out, but of one thing he was certain. There was something strange going on, and he was going to figure out what it was–
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