"And so the werewolf carried the lass off and neither was ever heard from again." Joan's sepulcher tones faded as the dark shadows in the kitchen reached out to wrap around the two young women listening so avidly to her every word.
Emily Hamilton tried to imagine being carried off into the wild by a werewolf, or being carried off anywhere for that matter, but couldn't. She was nineteen, well past the age when most ladies were married, or even dowered into a convent. She would spend her life as her stepmother's drudge.
She sighed. Not even a werewolf would risk Sybil's wrath to carry Emily off.
"Are there truly werewolves in the Highlands?" her younger stepsister, Abigail, asked in careful Gaelic.
Joan shook her head, nary a wisp of her gray hair peeking from the housekeeper's wimple she wore. "Nay, lass. Though if ever there were a place such monsters might thrive, it would be that harsh and hilly land."
"I thought you said the Highlands were beautiful," Emily inserted, her own Gaelic more natural than Abigail's.
But that was hardly a surprise. Her younger sister speaking at all was the result of Abigail's tenacity. When the fever had almost taken her life three years before, it had taken her hearing. It had also destroyed what existed of family harmony in Emily's home.
Deafness was considered a sign of the damned by some and a curse by most.
Sybil made it clear that she would have preferred her daughter had died rather than be so afflicted. Overnight, Abigail had gone from being an asset her stepmother counted on to advance her own place in the world, to a problem best avoided. It was left to Emily to coax her younger stepsister back to health and into living amidst the household again.
Out of fear that Abigail would be rejected by the rest of the keep like she had been by her own mother, Emily had done her best to hide her sister's affliction. The younger girl had helped, working hard to learn to read lips and continue speaking as if she heard the voices around her.
So far, the deception had succeeded. Few people within the keep knew of the fifteen-year-old's inability to hear.
"It's a beautiful place, or so my mother always told me… but a harder land to live in. Och… the clans are so wild, even the women know how to fight."
Emily thought it sounded like a magical place.
An hour later, the rest of the family and the servants were in bed. Everyone that was, except her father and stepmother. They were in the great hall talking. Emily was usually the last of the family to go to bed and she burned with curiosity to know what was important enough to keep her parents from their slumber.
She stopped at the top of the stairs leading to the great hall and moved into the shadows. Eavesdropping might not be ladylike, but it was a good way to satisfy her curiosity and her need to stay informed of her father and stepmother's plans. Too many others depended on her to protect them from Sybil's machinations and her father's cold indifference to their welfare.
"Surely, Reuben, you cannot expect to send Jolenta!" her stepmother cried.
"The king's order is quite explicit, madam. We are to send a daughter of marriageable age to this laird in the Highlands."
Emily ducked behind a small table, making herself as diminutive as possible. It was not difficult. Much to her personal chagrin, she was not precisely tall. It was a fact tossed at her by Sybil often. She had no "regal bearing," as befitted the daughter of a landholding baron. She supposed there was nothing regal about hiding behind a table, no matter how tall she might have been. And that was that.
"Jolenta is far too young to be married," stormed Sybil.
"She has fourteen years. Emily's mother was a year younger when I married her."
Sybil, Emily knew, hated any mention of her husband's first wife, and she responded with acid. "And a baby can be betrothed in the cradle. Many girls are wed when they are a mere twelve years, but almost as many die in childbirth. You could not wish such a fate for our delicate flower surely?"
Her father made a noncommittal sound.
"You might as well suggest we send little Margery as send my dear Jolenta."
In her hiding place, Emily had to smile. Margery was a mete six years. Even the Church refused to recognize marriages contracted between parties under the age of twelve.
"If Jolenta is of an age to marry, then surely Abigail at fifteen is also. This will doubtless be her only opportunity," Sybil said callously.
Bile rose in Emily's throat. She'd always known the other woman was cold, but such a suggestion was monstrous and her father had to know it.
"The girl is deaf."
Emily nodded in agreement and inched out of her hiding place so she could see her parents. They were sitting at the head table almost directly under where she stood and were too intent on one another to look up and see her.
Sybil said, "No one knows except the family and a few servants who would not dare to reveal our secret."
But Abigail could not hope to hide such an affliction from a husband, which was exactly what her father said.
"By the time he realizes she is so flawed, he will have consummated the marriage. Then he will have no recourse," Sybil said dismissively. "He's a Scotsman after all. Everyone knows they are barbarians, especially the Highland clans."
"And you are not concerned about what he will do to her when he realizes?" Sir Reuben asked.
Emily had to bite her lip to stop from screaming at the selfish woman when Sybil simply shrugged delicately.
"I have no desire to end up at war with one of the Highland clans over this."
"Don't be foolish. The laird is hardly going to travel this distance to take his anger out on you."
"So, I am foolish?" Sir Reuben asked in a dangerous tone.
"Only if you let old-womanish fears guide you in this decision," Sybil replied, showing how little her lord intimidated her.
"Aren't you the one who recommended I send the bare contingent of knights to assist my overlord in his last request for warriors?"
"We could hardly leave our own estates inadequately guarded."
"But his anger over my stinginess has led to this request."
"I was right though, wasn't I? He did not sanction you."
"You do not consider the loss of a daughter a sanction?"
"They must marry sometime and it is not as if we do not have a gaggle of them."
"But only one of whom you consider utterly dispensable."
"The others could still make advantageous matches."
Her stepmother's scoffing laughter was all the answer her father got to that small taunt.
"I will send word to the king that he can expect my daughter to travel north to Laird Sinclair's holding within the month along with her dowry."
"Not Jolenta?" Sybil asked, her voice quavering.
Sir Reuben sighed with disgust. "Not Jolenta."
He meant to send Abigail. Horrified, Emily shouted, "No!"
Both Sir Reuben and Sybil started and turned their heads toward her like two buzzards caught picking over a carcass.
She flew down the stairs. "You mustn't send Abigail to such a cursed fate!"
Sybil's mouth pursed with distaste. "Were you eavesdropping again?"
"Yes. And I'm glad I was." She turned to her father, her heart in her throat. "You can't think to send Abigail so far away to a husband who might believe her affliction is a sign from God that she is unclean."
"Perhaps it is such a sign," Sybil inserted, but Emily ignored her.
"Please, Father. Do not do this."
"Your stepmother has pointed out that it may well be Abigail's only chance at marriage. Would you deny it to her?"
"Yes, if it means sending her to a barbaric Scotsman who will be furious when he realizes how you have tricked him." As her father's face hardened, Emily forced herself to reign in her temper. She did not wish to lose the battle before she'd begun because her demeanor offended her father.
She lowered her eyes, though it was hard to do. "Please, Father. Do not be offended, but I believe Sybil is wrong. I do not think a proud leader of a Scottish clan would take such deception in stride and be content to spend his fury on his hapless wife."
The fact that either of her parents thought that an acceptable alternative was more than she could bear.
"You believe the clan leader would declare war?"
"What does she know?" Sybil scoffed. "She knows nothing of the world."
"I have heard the tales of these fierce people, Father."
"Tales told to frighten foolish children," Sybil said.
"So my daughter is foolish as well?" Sir Reuben asked, proving he had not forgotten his wife's earlier insult.
Sybil's hands fisted at her sides as if she realized she'd made an error in speaking so plainly now that they both knew the conversation had been overheard. Her father's pride might accept such intransigence from his wife in private, but he would not tolerate others—even a lowly daughter—seeing him in a light that could make him appear weak.
Emily was determined to use that to her advantage. "Father, you are one of the wisest of the king's barons. Everyone knows that."
"Too wise to risk war with a barbaric people simply to placate an overmanaging wife?"
Emily knew better than to answer, so she remained silent while Sybil gasped in outrage.
"Who would you have me send in her place?"
"Jolenta?" she asked.
"No!" Sybil cried and then she grasped her husband's sleeve. "Consider, my dearest lord, the betrothed of Baron de Coucy's heir died of a fever not a month past. The baron will be looking for a new bride to contract very soon. His mother has already made it clear she finds Jolenta pleasing."
The younger girl had spent the last two years at Court, an honor Emily had never been extended.
"I thought you said she was too young to wed."
"A barbaric Scotsman, but not the son of a powerful baron."
"Then who would you have me send in accord with the king's order?"
"No, please, Father…"
"I do not fancy a war over the disposal of one of my daughters."
Emily winced at her father's comment. Silence had fallen between her parents and she feared its outcome if she said nothing. Yet terror at her own thoughts and what they would mean for the sister she would leave behind as well as for herself filled her.
She took a deep breath and then forced herself to say, "Send me."
"You? You think, my lord, that the Scotsman will not go to war over you sending such an undisciplined girl? She's sure to offend him her first week as his wife."
"You said it yourself, they are barbarians. He would hardly appreciate a true English lady."
Old pain seared Emily's heart. Her father had no higher opinion of her than her stepmother. She had known that particular truth since her own mother's death, when he had berated a small girl crying over her mother's grave with the knowledge that she was not the son he had craved. If she had been, her mother would not have died trying to give birth to another.
Emily knew the cruel words for the lie they were… now. But until she had seen Sybil grow large with child twice more after giving her father the heir he sought, she had believed them. And felt unworthy because of them.
But she no longer believed that to be born female made her unworthy. Six years of correspondence with a powerful abbess had healed her of that affliction. She reminded herself of that fact as she raised her gaze to meet her father's.
It was as if he had been waiting for her to do so. "Think you that you will fare better than Abigail in the wilds of Scotland?"
"I think perhaps you are right." He turned to his wife. "It is decided. I will send Emily in answer to my overlord's demand."
"And Abigail?" Emily asked.
"She will remain here, under my protection."
The large black wolf sniffed the air, his powerful body coiled to spring into instant motion if needed.
Away from his own territory, even in the presence of his companions, the situation was fraught with danger. He had not brought an attack force and the clan he had come to spy on had a full contingent of wolf warriors. Some of them were even as mighty as his own.
That meant treading carefully.
He made his way silently through the forest, knowing his two companions followed, though he could not hear them. The presence of all three went undetected by man or beast and that was as it should be.
His father had started teaching him to mask his scent from the night of his first change, and he had perfected the art. Other werewolves and even wild animals could come close enough to touch him in the dark and never know he was there. He bad chosen two warriors just as skilled to accompany him.
Though he stopped often to sniff the wind, it was not his ultrasensitive nose that caught the first signal that his brother Ulf had been right. Rather, his ears picked up a sound no human could have heard at such a distance. From the clan's holding beyond the trees and across the expanse of heather-filled grass, he heard the unmistakable sound of the lass's laugh.
The femwolf, Susannah, was here.
Her soft human voice spoke, though even his superior hearing was not up to deciphering the words. She did not sound as if she were in distress, but that did not alter the facts or how he must respond to them.
Clan law… ancient clan law, known by most Celts and every Chrechte warrior who had joined them two centuries before… had been broken. A Balmoral woman had been taken to mate without the consent of the clan chief.
Lachlan, laird of the Balmoral and pack leader to the Chrechte contingent among them, would not tolerate the insult.
Ulf had been right about what had happened to the femwolf who had disappeared during the last full moon hunt. He had also been right when he said the Sinclairs must be made to pay. No Highland chief would tolerate such insolence leveled against his clan and himself as a person. It implied the Sinclairs thought he was too weak to enforce clan law, that his warriors did not protect their women.
England would be his ally before he would allow such a view of his clan to stand unchallenged. However, it was not a declaration of war that would give a message of the greatest impact to the other Highland clans, but well-planned revenge. As he had told Ulf when his brother had suggested mounting an immediate attack on the Sinclair holding.
Riding an exhausted horse and feeling less than wonderful herself, Emily surveyed her new home with both curiosity and trepidation.
The journey from her father's barony had been a long one and arduous upon reaching the Highlands. Shortly after reaching Sinclair land, an envoy of warriors had arrived to finish escorting her to their keep.
Emily had been both disappointed and relieved to discover that her husband-to-be had not accompanied them. Part of her wanted the first meeting over, but an even bigger part was content to put it off indefinitely.
The Sinclair warriors had refused to allow the English soldiers any farther onto Sinclair land. They had taken over her escort and Emily found them poor company indeed. They did not speak unless asked a question and then they answered in monosyllables if possible. Would her husband-to-be do the same?
Perhaps she would feel better if people would stop staring at her so. No one smiled, not even the children. Some adults openly glared at her. She turned to her nearest escort. "Some of the clan seem hostile. Why is that?"
"They know you are English."
Apparently that was supposed to explain it all because he stopped talking and even her curiosity was not up to questioning the soldier further.
So the clan knew she was English? That must mean they were expecting her.
For those in any doubt, her dress would have given her away, she supposed. She'd donned the dark blue tunic over her clean white shift with stylish wide sleeves three days ago. It was now as creased and bedraggled as the rest of her, but even if it had remained pristine, it was nothing like the garb of the Highlanders.
They all wore plaids, even the children. The colors were muted green, blue and black. It was a striking combination. She'd said something to that effect to one of her escorts upon first meeting—admittedly in an effort to pretend she wasn't noticing the fact that their lower legs were as naked as a baby being washed. He had growled that of course it was pleasing; they were the Sinclair colors.
She'd stopped trying to make small talk soon thereafter.
She turned her interest from the less-than-welcoming people to the Sinclair castle. The construction surprised her. She wasn't sure what she had expected, but something so much like her own father's home was not it The ground had been raised to a hill with a moat around it. The keep, which looked like a single high tower, was built on top of the hill with a wall all around. The timber wall extended down the hill to surround the bailey as well.
She hadn't imagined anything so grand in the Highlands. Perhaps her husband-to-be was not such a barbarian after all. Perhaps he would even have a kind heart and allow her to send for Abigail to come live with them. That was her most fervent hope.
Her escort led her across the drawbridge toward the keep.
A group of soldiers on the steps of the keep caught her eye. They all stood with arms folded and scowling at her approach. One soldier, who stood in the middle and was taller than all of the rest, scowled most fiercely. She tried to avoid looking at him because the dislike, nay hatred, emanating off of him was frightening.
She hoped he was not one of her husband-to-be's close advisors. She scanned the crowd to find her future husband, their laird. Her escort had led her almost to the scowling soldiers before she realized that one of them must be him. Her only excuse for being so slow to realize it was her deep desire for it to be otherwise.
Please don't let it be the angry man in the center, she prayed fervently, crossing herself for good measure.
When the soldier in the middle stepped forward, she offered up a last desperate plea. But she knew it had been in vain when, without acknowledging her, he waved for her escort to follow him.
"Where do you want the English woman?" called the soldier nearest her.
Her future husband merely shrugged and continued inside. For the life of her, she couldn't think of any good excuse for his behavior. Even if he was a barbarian as Sybil claimed.
She could only be glad that Abigail had not been sent in her place. God alone knew what kind of horrible things he might have done to her gentle sister. Or perhaps it was the devil himself who knew.
She banished the wicked thought, but could not dismiss as easily the sense of doom settling over her.