“Finola.” Campbell spun to face the witch. He'd forgotten she was there. She seemed to be always there now, watching. It chilled him. “What did you say, woman?”
“Forget not to whom you speak.” She stepped from the shadows, serene, her eyes dead pools.
Campbell glared in response, schooling his features into an impassive mask.
“I am not your clansman,” she warned.
Finola studied the bound man walking a tight circle around him. He was frozen in place, except for his eyes, which rolled and jerked between his chief and the sorceress. She leaned in toward him, shutting her eyes and flaring her nostrils wide. She wore her long hair loose, and a thick hank of it slipped from her shoulder and swept toward him like a great crimson veil.
The man's whimper echoed through the chamber, and she smiled.
“I am not yours to speak to thusly.” She placed a bony finger on the man's cheek. “Unlike this one.” She traced the track of blood with the point of her long, yellowed nail. “You would all be wise not to forget.”
The witch pursed her lips and gave the man a coy smile. A hollow tap-tapping filled the room. The sound of a thin trickle of urine dribbling to the ground. The witch shrieked a laugh and stepped back.
“He tells the truth, and I tell you, Campbell” – she spun to face him, her eyes suddenly glittering, alive with evil – ”she was the one. This mysterious woman. It was she with the power to shatter the MacColla. The one I called forth.”
It took him a moment to register her words. Could she be speaking the truth? He bit the inside of his cheek to silence his anger.
“I bade you bring her through time to me.”
The muscles in his legs trembled with bottled -up rage that he dare not spend on the witch. “Not to my enemy.”
“I did bring her back to you, Campbell.” Her voice was cavalier now, effortless. “And you were not there. I cannot pay the price for your incompetence.”
Campbell chuffed, fisting and unfisting his hands in frustration. He wanted that woman, whoever she may be. And now she was with MacColla. If she had the power to destroy his enemy, did she have the power to destroy Clan Campbell as well?
He stood once more before the bound clansman.
Unsheathed his “needle.” Campbell scraped it lightly back up the bloody smear on the man's face, and the clansman's feet began to skitter, as if he could push his chair back and somehow flee his chief.
Purdon instinctively came to his aid and stood behind the chair, bracing it at his thighs, holding the man's shoulders in his hands.
Campbell gave him a nod. The young soldier was eager to please. And better, he appeared to be enjoying the work. The days ahead would require such men.
He looked back down at his clansman. With one swift twist of his blade, Campbell sliced the man's eye. “A reminder,” he growled over the breathy, erratic screams that filled the chamber, “to take greater care the next time you stand watch.”
He'd summoned this woman back in time to him.
It was he who'd paid much. Risked much. Sullied himself with witchcraft. This woman was his property, like a misplaced weapon. And, like a lost item, he would find her and reclaim her.
And if he couldn't control her, Campbell would kill her.
“When is this all going to stop?” Jean's question broke the tense silence that had accompanied them for the past couple of hours. She seemed to be finding her mettle the further they got from Campbell's lair.
Damn straight, Haley thought, grateful that the girl had finally said something after hours of increasingly gusty and exasperated sighs.
MacColla had roused Haley far too soon, sweeping them all back into their saddles to be on their way once more.
Haley glanced around, even edgier than she'd been before. They'd entered the foothills of some sort of mountain range, and now she was totally confused. Could they be in the Berkshires?
“Yeah,” Haley muttered. She also wanted to know when it was all going to stop.
“'Tis just a wee hill.”
She could hear MacColla's patience wearing thin and felt a rush of irrational satisfaction. His sister's moaning had been almost as annoying as their never-ending trail ride.
It had been slow going all afternoon, bending far up their ponies' necks to manage uphill scrabbles on scree -covered slopes, then leaning far back for skittering descents. Every movement was agony for Haley, and yet it was the girl who required coddling.
“Could be worse,” he mused. “I could've taken you lasses up and over Beinn Bhreac. And faster it would've been,” he grumbled, “than meandering like a snake along the belly of these valleys.”
Beinn Bhreac? What the-
“Alasdair.” Jean's tone was stern, and Haley smiled.
This should be good, she thought.
“I'd meant, when will this fighting stop?” The girl scrubbed at her face. Was she crying? Haley wondered just what she could be talking about.
MacColla didn't answer for a time. He rode behind Haley, and she felt him adjust, saw from the corner of her eye as he pulled his head far to the right. Felt the light tickle and tug of her hairs pulling free from the stubble where they'd snagged along his jaw.
His voice was measured when he finally replied, “It will stop when it's over, Jean. Not before.”
Nice. He clearly ducked whatever question she'd been asking, and Haley couldn't believe the girl could put up with it.
Beinn Bhreac. She once more considered that strange phrase he'd said. Just what was it with him and the Gaelic? Beinn Bhreac. Speckled hill.
They rode along a deep valley, flanked by rocky slopes that felt way too barren for New England. Concern had become foremost in her mind, eclipsing even her injury.
The gorgeous landscape did nothing to calm her. On the contrary, the grand stretches of hill and hardscrabble foliage had an alien quality, heightening the sense of displacement that cut through her as viscerally as her pain.
Their path wound, narrowed into a thin gap, then widenedagain. Deep green pines studded the horizon, soaring along the hillside like a great, roughened spine. A tremendous buck crested the rise and froze, as sudden as a snapshot, captured like some sort of preposterously majestic still life.
It wasn't any Massachusetts she'd ever seen. Rocky slopes surrounded them, but they weren't the sharp craggy peaks of this North American mountain ranges she was familiar with. These brute, rounded hills had the feel of raw rock covered by a rough green and brown quilt of tenacious vegetation.
One plant in particular dominated, coarse and low to the ground, and Haley wracked her mind, frantic to place it. Frantic to find something recognizable in this increasingly foreign landscape.
Not the Berkshires at all, more like…
“Aye. the heather will be even more bonny come late summer.”
“Late summer?” She heard her voice crack. “What month is it now?”
He paused for a moment, then spoke tentatively, as if to a child. “May.”
May. Last thing she remembered, signs of fall had been all around. Those things that reappeared each year like clockwork. Her father's ancient Irish-knit sweater. The television tuned to a football game. Colin's trademark red and black flannel shirt. Chill wind whipping her hair in a dash along the Quad. Trees the glorious red and orange of autumn.
“May… Of course it is,” she muttered. Of course it would be May. Why wouldn't it be May in this backward universe she'd landed in?
“Ho!” A man shouted at them from a distance, and MacColla froze at her back. “Alasdair MacColla,” he shouted again, “as I live and breathe!”
They looked up to see someone standing on the hill above them, to the right and just slightly behind.
A kilted someone, with a sword at his waist and a smile on his face.
Oh good. Haley wavered in the saddle. There's the last straw right there. She was distantly aware of MacColla's hand steadying her waist.
“I hope we're not too late for the hammer throw,” she murmured, now feeling completely unmoored. Is everyone going to look like they're geared up for the Highland Games? She fought to stay upright despite the blood she felt draining from her head.
MacColla either didn't hear her remark or didn't acknowledge it. His focus was on the man, now hurtling down the hill toward them, his feet galloping at a lumbering run. The dull clatter of scree echoed through the valley as the man set a small tumble of rocks sliding down with him. MacColla exploded into a sharp bark of laughter, kicking his heels to spin the pony around to face him.
“John Scrymgeour,” MacColla informed his suddenly alert sister. It was just a quick aside, but the information appeared to put her at ease.
“I was told you'd been sighted in Argyll,” John panted when he reached them. Thin brown hair framed a full, goodhumored face. “Taking your leisure on Campbell lands? And a few other things besides, I'd wager.” The man gave a questioning glance in Haley's direction.
Was this guy in on the whole kidnapping thing? If so, he seemed remarkably nonchalant about it all. Might he be able to help her? Should she beg him for help?
The man's smile faded. “I have tidings from the king.”
His tone was somber, and Haley felt MacColla grow wary behind her. Their pony sensed it too, and she pranced a few nervous steps to the side.
“Indeed? And so serious you are, Scrymgeour.”
The man gave a single, earnest nod. Without his smile, his features appeared doughy, though no less pleasant.
“Perhaps your news would be best heard over a mug of ale. I find myself suddenly thirsty” MacColla added warily. “Ride with Jean, and we'll find ourselves by your hearth the sooner.”
The girl's abrupt movement called Haley's attention to her. Two angry spots suffused Jean's cheeks, a blush that looked particularly crimson in contrast to the white-knuckled grip she had on her reins.
“Please endure just one final rise, and you'll find the valley opening up wide before us, bearing my modest Fincharn in its palm.” John strode to Jean's side, giving her a gentlemanly half bow before mounting behind her. “The loch is lovely this time of year. The spring sunlight dances upon its surface like fire.” He spoke for Jean's ears, adding. “My castle lies just on the eastern shore of Loch Awe.”