Scottish Highlands, Summer 1705
The sun was up, a weak pale orb which merely hinted at warmth. Hard to believe it was the same one which blazed over the isle of Kentarra. Sorcha Tolmach yawned, cast aside the cloak she had wrapped around herself, and sat up. Everything about the Highlands was different from the familiar landscape of home. The vast tracts of moorland and forest she had already traversed could have easily swallowed up the whole island. The jagged mountain peaks with their snowy caps were much higher than the glittering jewel-studded crags which hid the underground citadel in which she lived. Here, the people inhabited little stone cottages. A dour race they seemed, though she had taken care not to get too close to them. One thing to impulsively run off as she had done, without an escort, and to travel across this alien world quite alone. It would be quite another to openly court being discovered.
She smiled as she thought of Eoin’s reaction to her disobedience. Her brother would be furious. As Alpha Prince, he had consistently refused to allow her to visit Grada, where her other brother Struan had his own realm, but she was tired of doing what she was told. Besides, she could look after herself. Her Faol powers were all the protection she needed from any human.
Delicately sniffing the early morning air, Sorcha’s senses thrilled at the very unfamiliarity of it. It was sharper, thinner, with none of the heady scents and soft humidity of Kentarra. But like an exotic perfume, the Highland blend of heather and pine and stony earth had its own illicit allure.
There was not a soul about. The desolate tract of moor she must negotiate rose gently in front of her, clumps of rock standing stark against the ground cover of heather and fern. In the distance, her keen eyesight spotted a narrow gap which marked the entrance to a glen. It was much greener there, and when she focused she could hear the tumble of a stream.
Quickly discarding her gown, and the white silk sark trimmed with lace she wore underneath it which was her only other piece of clothing, Sorcha tied them into a small bundle using her cloak. Naked, she stretched her arms high and threw back her head to look up at the sun. An onlooker would have been stunned by her sheer beauty, black hair rippling almost to her waist, striking silver-grey eyes, her lush body displayed in unashamed and quite unselfconscious perfection. There was about Sorcha an air of sensuality mingled with excitement, a whiff of danger. She was a sight no man would readily forget. It was as well there was no human man to see it.
Closing her eyes, she breathed deep and focused on her inner wolf. A sleek, silver creature, she was, who liked nothing more than to run, wild and free. Here in the Highlands, away from the constraints of her brother’s court and her own position as an un-claimed Alpha princess, Sorcha could afford to let her loose. Her powers sensing no danger hereabouts, she summoned her alter ego.
Her bones stretched. Her skin prickled. Her back lengthened, her thighs tautened. The pain was no more than a brief, blinding flash. The heart of her wolf beat faster than her own. The breath came quicker, shallower. She dropped to all fours, relishing the powerful rush which always accompanied her shifting, a mixture of sheer exuberance at the supple litheness of her body and a twisting, glittering desire which conjured vivid carnal fantasies. None of which she ever indulged.
The soft Highland breeze rippled her fur. Catching her bundle in her sharp teeth, Sorcha’s wolf picked her way delicately out of the ferns in which she had taken cover and loped confidently towards the glen.
Conall Macpherson, Laird of Kilfinnan, known to all as Black Conall, crouched down in the shelter afforded by a cluster of saplings. The tall muscular figure with his unruly hair and unkempt appearance blended seamlessly into the untamed Highland landscape. Around him in the glen, his sheep cropped contentedly at the grass. Conall picked up his musket. The long barrel was inlaid with mother of pearl and delicate silver filigree. Etched into the stock was the name of the man who had commissioned the expensive weapon, and the date. Rory Macpherson. 1700. Five years ago. Just six months before his brother’s untimely death.
Instinctively closing his mind to those heart-wrenching memories, Conall positioned the musket on his shoulder and trained his sights on his flock. Five days in a row now, the wolf had filled its belly from his livestock.
He spotted it something entering the glen from the eastern side. It was a wolf all right, though smaller than he’d expected. A female, by the looks of it, which was unusual. They rarely hunted alone. The she-wolf began to slow, her flanks heaving from the pace at which she had been travelling. A beautiful specimen with silver-grey fur, the ears and tail tipped glossy black. Part of him baulked at destroying such a lovely creature. Who would believe the merciless Black Conall capable of such compassionate thoughts?
He took aim. Perhaps it was the glint of the barrel which gave him away, but the wolf came to a sudden halt, dropping the bundle she had been carrying in her mouth. Her silver eyes seemed to be looking straight at him. Conall hesitated. Predator that she was, he was loathe to kill her. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he squeezed the hammer back. He could swear he saw surprise rather than fear in those eyes as they locked on his, then something else. Recognition. His hold on the musket loosened, the stock trembled, drawing it to the she-wolf’s attention. Her hackles rose. Fatally, Conall hesitated. The she-wolf launched herself at him and Conall belatedly pulled the trigger.
The musket ball left the barrel with a loud report which sent the startled sheep stampeding to the far end of the glen, bleating frantically. As the bullet caught her, the she-wolf seemed to pause in mid air before falling with a sickening thud to the soft grass. Discarding the gun and pulling his dirk from his belt, ready to spare her any suffering if necessary, Conall sped towards his prey.
The dirk dropped unheeded from his grasp as he stared in utter disbelief at the body on the ground. Not a she-wolf, but definitely female. Very female. Naked, and very beautiful, he noted distractedly. She was also bleeding profusely.
Conall dropped to his knees by the woman’s body, just as he had knelt at the side of another woman’s lifeless form, that fatal night nigh on five years ago. He could not believe it was happening again. That familiar feeling, of wanting to reel back time like a line on a fishing rod, of railing at the fates for colluding against him, made him curse long and fluently as he searched frantically for a pulse, tearing off his shirt to staunch the bleeding as the faint fluttering on her wrist signalled that she was still alive.
The musket ball had passed clean through her thigh. A quick inspection showed him that it had narrowly missed the bone. “Thank God, thank God,” he muttered, tying the make-shift bandage tightly round the wound before hefting his victim over his shoulder and making his way, as fast and as carefully as his legs would carry him, back to the ramshackle castle he, and he alone, called home.