Authors: Pam Binder
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Scotland, #General, #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction
of the Lady of the Loch
Through the mist-shrouded waters of an enchanted sea,
the Guardian will be summoned.
The seasons will alter their natural course.
The barriers of time will be broken.
And a woman, with hair of burnished gold, will be pulled from the depths of Loch Ness.
It is she who will bring the knowledge and the courage of generations yet unborn.
And a wisdom that will guide the chosen one out of his darkness.
But the waters will reclaim her once again, if, after the passage of one full moon,
the immortal she was sent to heal accepts not the power of Eternal Love.
I wish to thank my agent, Liza Dawson; my editors at Pocket Books, Kate Collins and Lauren McKenna; and Pam Goodfellow of Goodfellow Press for her expertise. I am also grateful to the following people, who generously gave of their time to help me with
: Sally Astridge, Matt Buchman, Karen MacLeod, Jennifer McCord, Kay Morrison, Sharon Plowman, May Taylor, Cindy Wyckoff, and John Zobel. I believe my book is richer in texture because of the help of these people.
Once again the mournful wail of bagpipes, followed by a woman’s cry for help, had awakened the laird of Urquhart Castle from a sound sleep and drawn him to the mist-shrouded waters of Loch Ness. In the light of the full moon the calm waters glistened like a newly forged sword as he made his way down the path to the shore. The image of the woman who had of late occupied his dreams came unbidden to his mind.
Her hair, the color of burnished gold, hung past her shoulders and the sadness reflected in her eyes made him wonder the cause. Lachlan MacAlpin did not know who she was, only that over the past few days her likeness had lingered in his thoughts well after he was fully awake. Each night this past seven days he had ventured out into the cool air, at first to escape his dreams, and then to pursue them. But tonight would be different. He could feel it.
The haunting music of the bagpipes returned. It was the same tune as the one in his dreams. He felt the hair prickle on the nape of his neck. The sound could be from a lone piper in the Highlands overlooking the loch. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
Waves began to foam to life, crashing against the stone walls of his castle as a shadow moved under the water. He was not afraid of the beastie that lived in the black depths of the loch; it was guardian to his people. But the creature only ventured near the surface when summoned, or when danger threatened those it protected. He knew it was not by chance the Guardian was near. There was a purpose, and as leader he must learn if its appearance was connected to his dreams.
Lightning cracked across the sky and he heard a faint cry for help through the increasing tempo of the bagpipes. There had been a time when he could have ignored such a plea for aid, but that was before he had left those he loved to the mercy of his enemy. The call came again, clear and insistent. He turned toward it. Not far from where he stood he could see someone in the water. A woman. Her cry rose above the growing storm as she fought to stay on the surface of the loch. His premonition had borne fruit, but fate had a way of destroying hope.
Lachlan hastened to remove his sword and tossed it onto the rock ledge. Plunging into the angry waters, he felt the bottom of the loch drop off abruptly to its unknown depths. His pulse quickened as he saw her pulled beyond his reach. Frustration filled him. How fragile life was for these mortals. He was weary of death and longed to become like his sword, strong, emotionless, and unfeeling.
He dove under the water in search of her, but could see little in the murky blackness. Death would not claim this one, he vowed. Surfacing, he saw her only a short distance from him. She was gasping for air. Lightning split the sky and illuminated her face. He lunged toward her. Her long hair and the garments she wore tangled around him. The fear in her eyes disappeared when she reached for him and clung to his neck. Time held its breath. He wrapped his arms around her slender waist before the icy currents dragged them both under the surface.
The numbing cold surrounded him. His lungs burned and the current tried to pull her from his grasp. He held on. She could not survive without his help. Fighting the power of the loch, he kicked free of its hold and broke the surface. He held her head above the waves and swam until he could touch the bottom.
Lachlan stood, shuddering as the crisp wind lashed across his wet skin. She lay cold and still in his arms. Her eyes were closed and her hair was draped over the silken garment that clung to her body. His breath caught in his throat. She was the image of the woman in his dreams. He removed his shirt and wrapped it around her. Reaching for his sword, he slung it over his shoulder and then gently cradled her against him. She shivered in his arms. It felt as though she had molded her body to his.
Cold rain began to fall as he hurried toward the warmth of the castle. This woman from the loch must not die. She had placed her life in his hands. The weight of that responsibility was familiar. His people relied on his wisdom and strength, from the approval of marriage to the fate of anyone who broke their laws. He called an order to the gatekeeper, who ran to obey. The massive door creaked open and torches on the inner walls cast gray shadows as he headed toward the side entrance.
His voice broke through the silence once more and thundered with authority. “Una. I am in need of your help.”
He knew his longtime friend would be awake as she slept little these days. As he adjusted the woman in his arms, he could feel the shallow breathing against his chest.
“Rest easy, lass, you are safe.” She nestled closer and a wave of protectiveness washed over him. The strength of his reaction surprised him. Lachlan kicked open the door to the cookroom.
Una was busy wiping down a long trestle table. Wisps of gray hair framed her face as she bent over her task.
She turned slowly toward him. He heard her sharp intake of breath as she put the doth down and wiped her hands on her apron. Una shuffled over to him and touched the woman’s face.
“She lives, but death chases her soul. ‘Tis a long time since you have brought a lost one to my door. Where was she found?”
Una paused. “The black water claims many who enter its depths. We must make haste.”
Lachlan drew the woman against his chest and nodded in die direction of the stairs. “A fire still burns in my chamber.”
Una raised an eyebrow. “This is not an injured bird or stay wolfhound you care for, but a grown woman.”
“Aye. Advise Marcail her skill as a healer be needed.”
He passed Una, climbing the stairs two at a time. She would not question his decision. He had always brought home stray animals and children found abandoned either through neglect of the cruelty of war. Una was ever the one he first looked to for help.
He could hear Una wheeze as she struggled to keep up with him. She was growing older. He could make her days easier until the angel of death claimed her, but he would remain, as he always had. He looked at the lass he carried in his arms. She was as still as the marble statues that lay scattered about the temples of Greece. He drew her to him, hoping to share his warmth.
At the top of the stairs Lachlan pulled open the door to his chamber. He entered and placed her on his bed.
Una’s breathing was labored as she came into the room and put her hand on his arm. “You will need to wait in the corridor while I remove the lass’ wet clothes.”
Lachlan hesitated for a moment, reluctant to leave. He backed toward the door to the hallway. There was a reason the gods had brought her, but their purpose eluded him.
Through the oaken panel door, Lachlan heard Una humming a tune so old the words had been lost over time. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Una must believe the woman would survive; if not, there would be silence in his chamber. Una was of the opinion that you let music into your life only when there was something to sing about. He trusted her instincts.
The door opened as Una motioned for Lachlan to reenter the chamber. The woman on the bed cried softly. Worried, he glanced over at Una.
She smiled. “All is well. The lass sleeps, and already her body has warmed. It will be some time before she awakens.”
The woman’s garments were draped over Una’s arm. “I fear her clothes are in such a tattered state that they are beyond repair. But I have never felt their like. The fabric is of the finest silk. The stitches so tiny and prefect, they are almost invisible. She must be a woman of great wealth. There is little more I can do.”
“I shall watch over her.” He chose to ignore Una’s smile.
Lachlan placed a chair by the bed and sat down. A faint glow of color caressed the woman’s face. She was beyond his dreams of beauty. And he felt drawn to her in a manner he had never experienced before. He glanced out the window. The angry storm that had raged against the castle walls disappeared as quickly as it materialized. Once again the night was still. He leaned back and closed his eyes. The door to the chamber opened. He heard the sound of a dog padding across the floor.
Una laughed. “Well, if it is not MacDougal, here to keep you company.”
The wolfhound trotted over and dropped down at Lachlan’s feet. He patted the animal as Una left. It occurred to him that she knew him better than anyone in the castle. For forty-five years she had retained an honored position at Urquhart, and had seen that all ran smoothly when he was away. He sought her counsel on matters that concerned those who lived and worked in the castle.
Lachlan folded his arms across his chest and remembered the time she had learned what he was. He had been gored by a pack of wild boars and she had tended his wounds. Of course, when he had recovered, there were no scars. It was then he had told her that he was immortal. She had been unafraid, a true sign of courage in these superstitious times.
He reached down and scratched MacDougal behind the ear. When Una died, he would see that there was a mass said in her honor. He felt regret constrict his heart as though fingers tightened around it. No matter what he did for them, mortals still died. Of late, he had feared that as a result of all the death that surrounded him, he lacked a soul. His heart might beat in his chest, but he had begun to feel nothing. Lachlan had come to accept it. It was the price he paid for immortality.
The wolfhound raised its head and looked toward the door. It was Marcail. Dressed in a gown of black and gold, she looked regal and as cold as any queen. MacDougal growled.
“Easy, old friend. Marcail will not attack unless provoked.” The animal went to stretch out in front of the fire by the hearth, but kept its eyes focused on Marcail.
She raised an eyebrow. “Interesting beast. But, if it were mine, I would not allow it to remain inside the walls of the castle.” She nodded in the direction of the bed. “However, there are more important matters to discuss. You have a visitor.”
“Una did not have the Opportunity to inform you of the woman, yet here you are, at this late hour.”
“I would not risk her overhearing our conversation.” She motioned for him to follow her into the adjoining chamber.
Lachlan glanced down at the woman who was sleeping in his bed. She shifted, as if in the hold of an inner battle he was unable to fight on her behalf. He reached over and smoothed back her hair from her forehead before joining Marcail.
“Your travels with the Medidis have made you suspicious.”
“I prefer to think of it as caution.” She turned toward him. “We must decide what is to be done with the woman you pulled from Loch Ness.”
“You speak of her as though she was a prize horse to be traded at will. That is unlike you, Marcail.”
She fingered the lace at her sleeve and for a brief moment Lachlan saw vulnerability in her eyes.
“We must be careful. Rarely has anyone been pulled from the icy depths of the loch and survived. However, the legend speaks of such an occurrence.”
A glimmer of hope, he thought long buried, surfaced. She was alluding to the ancient myth binding his people’s history to the loch. It had not struck him until this moment that the woman’s appearance was as foretold in the legend.
“You do not believe she could be from a neighboring clan?”
Marcail shook her head slowly.
“One of Subedei’s spies sent to infiltrate the castle?”
“Nay, I am certain she is not a spy.”
Her words held conviction, and something more. She hid knowledge from him, knowledge of the woman. Lachlan would learn the truth. He let the silence grow between them.
Marcail straightened and raised her chin. “I shall inform the castle that she is from Italy. While on her way to Urquhart, her entourage was set upon and attacked. She was the only one to survive. Elaenor can lend her clothes until suitable garments can be made. Further, she is to be your betrothed.”
Lachlan felt the walls dose in on him. “An elaborate plan, merely to explain her existence.”
Through the window, the full moon shone torch-bright in the sky. Her voice was merely a whisper. “It will give us time.”
He nodded his head slowly, seeing the logic in Marcail’s plan. “And the marriage?”
“Only if you desire it.”
Pale, rose-colored shafts of morning light burned through die thick mist in the courtyard below. Lachlan welcomed the new day and hoped it would see the woman wake, and thus end his vigil. His thoughts would not let him rest though he longed for the black void of sleep.
He stood in an alcove of narrow windows in his chamber and watched his people make ready the day. They were in high spirits. And why should they not be? The weather had turned warm for a Highland autumn. Foreboding chilled his bones as he remembered the words of the legend.