Christmas Day, 1622. Scottish Highlands
Snow had fallen overnight. In the early hours of the morning, the temperature had dropped sharply, making glittering crystals of the fallen flakes which crunched underfoot as the villagers gathered, the women with their arisaidhs drawn up over their heads, the men with their plaids wrapped tightly around them. Silence reigned as the birds watched on mutely from the bare branches of the trees.
A large bonfire had been built, but not to warm the assembled crowd. Its purpose was much more sinister. The atmosphere among the circle of Highlanders was tense, a potent brew of resentment tinged with fear at being forced to endure such a spectacle on Christmas Day of all days. But the laird had insisted, set upon providing an entertainment second to none for his high-born guests, and the laird’s word was law.
Her bare feet numb, her eyes dazzled by the bleak morning light after days spent in the dank dungeons of the castle, Lillias was consumed by a fury so incandescent she did not feel the bitter cold, though she wore only her ragged shift. Ankles and wrists manacled, she shuffled along the path flanked by two of the laird’s men. The priest’s chanting affected her no more than the irritating buzz of an insect.
The circle of villagers opened suffice to allow her entry. In front of her stood the pyre on its platform of stones, taller than she’d expected, much more substantial. Faggots of peat were laid around the base. It would burn long and fiercely. Almost, her heart failed her then. Lillias staggered, but pride kept her upright. Boldly, she tossed back the distinctive tawny tangle of hair which marked all of her female kin and stood in the place hollowed out for her at the base of the wooden stack. The witch’s bonfire. Her funeral pyre.
As they fastened the manacles to the stake, Lillias sought her daughter out amongst the curious gazes of the laird’s coterie. Her aura was bile-black and acrid, so different from the soft, glowing cloud which had enveloped Jennifer since childhood. Standing next to her was the man Lillias held responsible for poisoning her daughter’s mind towards her. Seamus, the laird’s son and Jennifer’s husband. The pair of them had branded her an evil witch even though they, and all the village, knew she only used her powers to do good. The laird had readily accepted their trumped-up evidence, sensing the opportunity for a Christmas entertainment that would be the talk of the glens.
The twigs were lit at the bonfire’s base. Damp with melted snow, the wood and peat caught slowly. The warmth was almost welcome on her chill-blained feet, though Lillias knew it was but a shadow of the fierce heat which would slowly consume her.
A man leapt forward from the crowd. “For pity’s sake,” he cried, “this woman saved my bairn’s life when all hope was lost. At least grant her the solace of a noose to spare her suffering.” But the laird shook his head and his men pushed the villager roughly back into the throng.
The first of the flames licked up around her toes. Her manacles heated and began to sear the flesh around her ankles. Lillias’s beautiful golden eyes blazed brighter than the pyre as she summoned her powers. Though her bound hands prevented her from pointing, the fierceness of her gaze directed all others’ – villagers, laird, and ladies – at Jennifer.
“A curse be upon you.” Her voice carried clear of the smoke, out into the crisp winter air. The villagers drew away as one, with a hiss of simple terror. Even the priest ceased his incessant chanting. With the flames licking at her shift, Lillias needed all her strength and resolution, all the vitriol which she had nursed through the days of captivity which followed her token trial. “For the sin of my betrayal, I place this curse upon you, my daughter. Your precious husband, who loves himself more than you, will die a year to the day upon which you married him.”
Her words held the villagers transfixed. The flames licked higher now, the heat was making her choke, but the pain was as yet bearable. “And so it will be, for each generation of my female kin in the years to come. To them, I bequeath my powers and my curse, until a true and perfect love does break the cycle.”
Smoke filled her lungs. Pain seared her flesh. Lillias fortified herself with a final look at her petrified daughter and corrupt son-in-law, then closed her eyes and waited for death to take her.
The snow was falling heavily, thick flakes fluttering down from the leaden sky like a lace curtain. Lawrence Connaught reined in his horse and pulled his beaver hat from his head to brush it clean. Blinking away the melting crystals which clung to his lashes, he shook the damp from his hair, which was unfashionably long and curled over the high collar of his many-caped great coat. The rutted road, by London standards no more than a track, meandered ahead of him, dipping and climbing in a most contrary way, which made it impossible to tell how far he had still to travel. The last village was about five miles back. If his mother was to be relied on – which she rarely was – then Dunswaird was another mile, at most two, further on.
“You’ll spot the place easily,” Moira Connaught had told her son with a shudder of distaste. “It looks more like a medieval keep than a castle. It is quite old but quite plain too. I doubt it will appeal to your architectural sensibilities.”
For once, Lawrence had been inclined to agree with her. Tower house-style castles were, in his experience, durable but rather dour. He was, however, curious about this unexpected legacy. Dunswaird Castle had come into his ownership following the death of his mother’s uncle, a confirmed misogynist whose will, twenty years out of date, named his brother, Lawrence’s uncle, as heir. Since he had joined his maker some ten years previous leaving a clutch of daughters, all as yet unwed, and had no other male siblings, Lawrence found himself, six months after the death of a relative he had never met, the possessor of his castle and his title provided he paid, according to some ancient tradition, the price of a thistle and a rose to the crown each Lady Day.
The most recent of Lawrence’s architectural commissions had been completed in October. He had not yet decided on the next. More importantly, he was in urgent need of an excuse to avoid yet another of his mother’s house parties and the parade of eligible young ladies she produced for him in an increasingly desperate attempt to see her eldest son settled. But her eldest son was not in the least bit interested in settling. The very word, so very staid and very dull, bored him.
Variety was the spice of Lawrence’s life, in both work and women – especially women – at least it had been until recently. Recently, even variety had begun to pall. His boredom threshold was becoming alarmingly low. The thrill of the chase, the witty banter with its double entendres and seductive undertones which he once enjoyed almost as much as the consummation which followed, now seemed to him pointless. Horrified by the notion that he may be growing arrogant, one of those tedious, seen-it-all boors, he had begun to spend more and more time alone. His last liaison had ended six month ago now, and he felt no inclination to embark upon another. Something was missing from his life, but it was not another affaire. He needed a change of a more substantive kind.
“And change, these Highlands of Scotland most certainly are,” he muttered to his horse, “though just exactly where I am in for the present quite defeats me.” Jamming his hat back on his head, Lawrence set off once more, wondering if he’d been unwise not to spend the night with his baggage at the last inn.
Ten minutes later, and the snow had begun to permeate even the thick grey wool of his greatcoat. He could no longer feel his toes inside his top boots. An eerie silence prevailed. In the strange light, it could be either dawn or dusk. He felt as if he were the only living soul in this bleak, treacherous landscape.
He rode on, concentrating all his energy on remaining in the saddle, too cold and too mesmerised by the whirling snow to notice how far he had strayed from the track until a branch whipped painfully across his cheek. Reining in, he found himself in a densely wooded copse. Already, the hoof prints of his horse were obliterated behind him. Dismounting, his boots sank into deep snow. The light was failing fast. The sky was murky, ominous. Around him, the gnarled branches of the bare trees seemed to be encroaching, reaching out, beckoning. His horse whinnied, straining at the reins, pawing nervously at the ground. He rubbed his gloved hand over its twitching ears, but the animal refused to be calmed, snorting and pulling more forcefully to free itself.
He was lost. He knew he was lost, though he refused to accept it, and there was a part of him which welcomed the fact, for at least it was a change. Determined to choose any way rather than none, Lawrence stumbled, dragging his reluctance mount, towards what looked like a path leading through the copse, but almost immediately the naked branches swallowed him up with their snagging limbs. He turned back, but must have missed his direction, for the next path looked wholly unfamiliar. Another turn, and he was in another small clearing.
The clutching branches of the desiccated forest snatched at his greatcoat, his hat, his hair as he stumbled in and out of rabbit holes and partially-frozen streams indiscriminately, with no aim save to escape from this Godforsaken place. “This is ridiculous,” Lawrence muttered, quite disconcerted by the impenetrable landscape. A noise to his right made his terrified steed rear up. He whipped round in an effort to retain his tenuous grip on the reins, caught a glancing blow to his head from a low bough, and only just retained his balance.
Through the trees, a thin spiral of smoke caught his eye. Shakily, he managed to remount, pointing his horse in the direction of the smoke, forcing his way through and out of the forest. The cottage was white, thatched, almost obscured by the snow, which was falling heavier than ever. Dizzy and weak from the blow he had sustained, Lawrence clung swaying and semi-conscious to the saddle.
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