Authors: Ruth Langan
“What is your heart feeling, my lady?”
“Strangely elated. As though on the verge of some new and wonderful discovery.” She traced the outline of his mouth with her finger.
His eyes were narrowed on her with such intensity, she felt a quick twist of fear.
“Do you know what happens when you tempt a sleeping wolf, my lady?”
When she said nothing, he whispered, “You become its prey. The wolf, once awakened, devours you.”
He released her hand and turned away. His snub was like a knife to her heart.
Over his shoulder he said softly, “Go now and rest for the morrow’s journey.”
Kylia felt tears spring to her eyes and brushed them away with the back of her hand. She would not permit herself to weep over this man. Nor any man…!
Harlequin Historical #666
“Ruth Langan is a true master at involving your
emotions, be they laughter or tears.”
“…another tautly written, fast-paced
and sensual romance. A fine example of why
this author is such a successful romance writer.”
—Romance Reviews Today
The Sea Sprite
“Ruth Langan makes us believe
in the beauty of true love.”
“…characters so incredibly human the reader
will expect them to come over for tea.”
—Affaire de Coeur
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Harlequin Historicals Christmas Stories
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For Randi, With her sweet nature and delightful wit.
And for Tom, Who lives to tease.
Scottish Highlands, 1559
he clang of sword against shield rang in the Highland forest as barbarians rose up from their places of concealment to attack the horsemen in plaid who rode toward them in single file. Caught unawares, there was nowhere the Highland warriors could reassemble their forces. They had no choice but to put up a brave front, even though they were badly outnumbered.
“They knew we were coming, my lord.” Finlay, the old man who had ridden with the clan MacCallum for more than two score years, caught the young lord’s arm. “Ye must turn the men back. Else, all will be lost.”
The thought of retreat went against everything Grant MacCallum believed in. But common sense had to rule over ego. These men had wives and families depending on them. If they were to stand and fight against such overwhelming odds, most would be lost, leaving their clan with even more widows and orphans grieving their losses.
Through gritted teeth he shouted the order. “Sound the call to retreat.”
Minutes later the wail of the pipes had the horsemen turning and plunging into thickets to escape the swords of their enemy. Grant stood his ground, fighting alongside old Finlay until every last man had made good his escape. Then, watching the old man’s back until he, too, was free, Grant pulled himself onto his steed and took off with a thunder of hoofbeats.
As he made his way back to his Highland fortress, he mulled this latest in a series of chilling events. Since he’d been declared laird of the MacCallums, they had twice been met by an army of invaders at the very spot they’d hoped to mount a surprise attack. Once could have been considered an accident. The second time
could no longer be considered an isolated incident. Taken together, they proved without a doubt that he was being betrayed. But since plans of this march had been known to only a handful of his most trusted Council members, he now knew that the betrayal was personal, and was coming from one of his own.
“We just heard the news.” Grant’s brother Dougal, younger by thirteen months, was breathless from racing up the stairs of the fortress to his chambers. Though he was shorter and broader, his hair and eyes a paler version of Grant’s, the two bore a striking resemblance to each other.
Behind him trailed a tall woman dressed like a cloistered nun, wearing a black gown and head cover, with a veil covering her face. She crossed the room, quiet and stiff backed, and settled herself into a chair set before the fire.
“Aunt Hazlet.” Grant turned from the balcony, where he’d been deep in thought, and crossed to the woman to press his hand to hers. It was the only sign of affection she permitted.
She folded her hands in her lap. Even her
voice had the clipped, precise tone of a mother superior. “I’ve been told by the Council that you didn’t catch the invaders, nephew. You realize the people will now think you a coward for running from a fight.”
Grant turned toward the flames of the fire. “What others think of me is the least of my worries.”
“What can be worse than letting invaders go free, or having your own people brand you a coward?”
“What’s worse? I’ll tell you. Betrayal.” Grant spat the word.
“What are you saying?” Dougal crossed the room to stand beside his brother.
Grant shot a glance at old Finlay, who stood quietly across the room. “Our attackers knew we were coming. They were hiding along the bend in the trail, where fighting would be the most difficult.”
Dougal’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Perhaps they saw the glint of your shields.”
“There was no sunlight in the forest,” the old man said softly.
“The sound of men’s voices, then. Or the thundering of horses’ hooves.”
Grant shook his head. “I’d cautioned my warriors to remain silent. The horses were walking. I tell you, our enemies had been forewarned of our arrival.”
Dougal shot him a look. “Are you saying there’s a traitor in our midst?”
“Exactly.” Grant picked up a length of plaid and tossed it over his shoulder before strapping on his scabbard.
Seeing it, his brother touched a hand to his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To the Mystical Kingdom.”
That had Dougal shaking his head. “You jest.” Seeing the flare of anger in his brother’s eyes, he arched a brow. “Nay, I see that you’re serious.” He turned to their aunt to back him up. “But surely you know what they say about that place.”
Grant nodded. “Aye. I’ve heard a lifetime of tales about the dragon that guards the loch, protecting the witches who live there. But if the legends be true, and a man successfully crosses into their kingdom, those witches can be forced to reveal their secrets to him.”
“Perhaps.” Grant picked up his dirk and tucked it into his boot. “But the people of Duncrune have declared me laird of the clan MacCallum. With that privilege comes the responsibility of keeping those under my protection safe. If that means I must risk my life, so be it.” He laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’ll not return to Duncrune Castle until I have what I seek.”
“And what is that?”
Their aunt got to her feet. “You’d take the word of a witch as truth?”
“Am I better off trusting one who would betray me?”
“You don’t know that to be true.”
“I know it in my heart, Aunt.” Grant looked from Hazlet to Dougal, before turning away.
Dougal said softly, “I should go with you.”
“Nay.” Hazlet’s eyes blazed behind her veil. “Our people cannot afford to lose both of you. If you intend to follow through on this folly, nephew, you’d best leave Dougal here to reign as laird in your absence.”
Grant heard the murmur of voices coming
from the great hall below stairs, where many of his most trusted men had gathered. “We have the Council. They’re capable of seeing to the safety of our clan until I return.”
“They’re fine enough warriors, if that’s all that is needed. But you said yourself there may be a traitor among them. Who can be trusted to make a decision of any importance while you’re off chasing after witches?”
Grant took no offense at the hint of sarcasm that colored her words. There was a time when he, too, would have dismissed witches and magic as complete nonsense. But that was before he’d become desperate to learn the truth behind his betrayal.
He turned to his brother. “Aunt Hazlet is right, of course. Until I return, I leave the protection of our people to the Council, and any decisions requiring my seal to you, Dougal. You’ll see to it?”
“If you order it, though I’d rather ride with you than stay behind.”
“I order it, then.”
The two men clasped hands.
“What about me, my laird? Will you at least permit me to ride with you?”
At Finlay’s question, Grant looked over. “Nay, my friend. You’ll stay and see to the safety of my brother and my aunt.”
A short time later the three watched as Grant strode from the room. They stood together on the balcony and heard the servants shouting out words of farewell as their laird turned his steed toward the misty mountains that loomed in the distance.
Hazlet turned away, shaking her head. “Grant is as stubborn as my brother Stirling was. I only pray he doesn’t prove himself to be as foolhardy, as well.”
Her words sent a shudder through Dougal. It was common knowledge that his father’s reckless disregard for his own safety on the field of battle had cost him his life and that of his closest friend, Ranald, who had been the great love of Hazlet’s life. Brokenhearted, Hazlet had taken to her chambers in mourning, refusing to see anyone.
To add to the family woes, Stirling’s beautiful young wife, Mary, made frail by the birth of her firstborn, died hours after giving birth to Dougal. Hazlet had been forced to rouse herself from
her grief to assist at the birth and care for the infant.
Seeing Dougal’s distress, Hazlet was quick to soothe. “You mustn’t fret, dear heart.”
“But what if our family is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? You said yourself that Grant is reckless.”
“That doesn’t mean you must be like him.”
“The same blood flows through our veins.”
“As it flows through mine.” She touched a hand to his cheek. “But I am no more like my brother than you are like yours. Come. We’ll go below stairs and meet with the others. Once they learn of their laird’s latest folly, they’ll be in need of wise counsel. Together you and I will ease their fears.”
Behind them, old Finlay remained on the balcony, watching until his laird was out of sight.
The forest was dark as midnight. No sunlight could penetrate the thick growth of twisted, tangled brush that resisted every step taken. Grant had been forced to dismount and use his sword to hack at the vines and shrubs that barred his way. Several times his steed drew back in terror
as creatures swooped from above, eyes glittering like burning embers in the darkness. It was enough to chill a man’s soul and fuel a raging terror. But the need that drove him consumed him far greater than any fear of the unknown. And so he plunged on, determined to reach his goal.
After many torturous hours he saw the faint glow of light ahead. At last he breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped from the forest and was almost blinded by the glare of sunlight reflecting off the water that lay directly before him.
“The Enchanted Loch.” He breathed the name of the place he’d heard about since childhood. Surely it was so, since the water glistened with the colors of diamonds and sapphires. He cupped a handful and drank. It was the sweetest, purest water he’d ever tasted. When he looked down at his fingers, he saw the jewel droplets remaining. But instead of water, they were actual jewels, winking in the sunlight. Brilliant white diamonds and silver-blue sapphires. Enthralled, he wrapped them in a bit of linen and tucked them into a pocket at his waist.
At a rumble of thunder that echoed across the
sky, he looked up. Not thunder, he realized. It was the roar of the dragon that guarded the loch. The creature came up slowly from the water, looming closer and larger, until it dwarfed even the cliffs that rose up on the far side. Its body was longer than any boat, and covered with scales. The giant mouth opened. A tongue flicked out, followed by a stream of fire that had Grant diving into the sandy shore to escape being burned alive.
He felt intense heat rush past his head and watched in horror as the beast emerged from the water and lumbered toward him. His first thought was that he’d never faced such a fearsome opponent. He had often been outnumbered in battle, and had been forced to fight until there was no strength left in him. But he’d always believed he had the inner resources to win. This time, his courage would be sorely tested.
He unsheathed his sword and started forward, determined to conquer both this monster and his own fear.
The dragon reared back, resting on its tail. One giant claw lashed out. In the space of a moment Grant caught sight of razor-sharp talons
that could shred a man to ribbons with a single swipe. He veered to one side, and felt the quick slice of pain as his arm was cut to the bone from shoulder to elbow. For a moment the pain dropped him to his knees as blood flowed like a river, soaking his plaid. The sword slipped from his hands. The dragon used that moment to turn wrap its tail around him, pinning his arms to his sides. Ever so slowly it began to squeeze the life from him.
Grant could barely breathe as the pressure against his chest increased until he could feel stars dancing in front of his eyes. The giant tail swished to and fro, tossing him about in a dizzying ride. He knew it was only a matter of time before he would lose consciousness. Though he no longer had his sword, he still had the dirk in his boot. He eased his foot up until his fingertips came in contact with the cold steel of the dagger. Sweat beaded his forehead as he moved the blade inch by inch, until at last he managed to grasp it firmly and began methodically cutting away at the scaly flesh that held him prisoner. With the first cut he felt his chest expand
enough to breathe easily. With the second cut, and the third, he could feel himself slipping free. Another slice, and then another, and he was falling through air until he landed with a splash in the water. For a few unsteady moments he sank beneath the waves and wondered if, after all this, he might face death by drowning. But then he felt the sand beneath his feet and knew that he had reached the shallows. There, just in front of him, lay his fallen sword.
He saw the dragon rear up, and knew that he wouldn’t survive a second attack. Taking up his sword, he changed course, choosing to attack rather than simply defend himself. Darting between the creature’s front legs, he looked up and saw the massive pulsing chest just above him. Using both hands, he grasped his sword and drove it deep into the beast’s heart.
The dragon fell back, its eyes fixed on the sun as it emitted a roar that echoed across the heavens. The water ran red with its blood as it slowly sank beneath the waves.
Grant staggered to the shore and lay struggling for breath as the Enchanted Loch stirred
and bubbled, before growing calm once more. When he sat up, there was no sign of the dragon. But the water remained bloodred, glistening like rubies.
He tied a length of plaid around his arm to stem the flow of blood. With his sword at the ready, he caught his horse and led it into the loch. Whatever other dangers lay in wait for him, he would meet them with the same unflinching determination. Though he was exhausted from his battle with the monster, he was determined that nothing would keep him from his goal of reaching the Mystical Kingdom and the witches who dwelled therein.
Hearing the distant roar, Nola Drummond looked up from her loom and cast a worried glance at the sky outside her cottage. The heavens were a sea of blue, without a cloud on the horizon.
She hurried to the doorway and called out to her mother, who was cooking over an open fire. “The dragon cries.”
“Aye.” Wilona wiped a sheen of sweat from her brow. “We must summon the lasses home.”