Warrior of the Highlands

      part 3 of Highlands series by Veronica Wolff / Science Fiction / Romance & Love

Warrior of the Highlands
Page 1
Prologue

Campbell stared at the woman. She seemed an ill-used and wizened creature, despite the fact that she was likely not much older than his forty-three years. The moon's watery light picked out but a few white strands marbling her red hair, and yet her body was hunched into a rigid bow, fat and muscle stretched thin and tight on her bones.

He shifted. He'd have the woman get on with her ritual. His clansmen would look in horror at such black witchcraft, but the trepidation he'd initially felt was waning, and Campbell grew piqued with each passing minute. He resented sitting on the ground like some rustic, his back aching, with small rocks biting into his palms every time he adjusted his weight on the cold, packed dirt.

He tried to take her measure. It had taken coin aplenty to track the witch down, but her reserve planted the seed of doubt in his head: Was she truly one to be feared, or was she merely some shrewd carlin adept at parting men from their purses?

Though he stared openly at her, Campbell could get no more than a passing glance of her face full-on. Her eyes focused on a place in the far distance and didn't deign rest on him, always wavering ever so slightly as if she were blind, though he knew she was not. She moved in the darkness like a cat, and Campbell saw clearly how those who knew of such things told of witches choosing the detested animal as their familiar.

He would see if this Finola had powers. And he would burn her himself if she wasn't the sorceress she claimed.

Finola. His skin crawled. Campbell knew the name meant “white shoulder,” and it thrust intimate and unwelcome images into his head. Fragments of ivory skin. The fall of red hair onto a pale shoulder.

He gave himself a shake. Perhaps it was the dark arts at work. Perhaps she had the power to shift shape into some fiendish consort for Lucifer himself. Unthinking, he spat into the ritual lire to exorcise such thoughts.

Finola's gaze shot up to meet his. The flames set her green and yellow eyes to glowing, and Campbell imagined he saw evil glimmering there, like an oily shadow sliding just beneath the surface. He'd hoped to catch her in a glimpse head-on, and now he just wished her to look away.

His voice cracked in the darkness. Anything to break the spell he felt chilling through his flesh down into his bones.

“When will you begin, woman?”

The sinister glare receded like a retracting membrane from her eyes, and what was left was simply Finola regarding him with distaste. “You yearn for your enemy like a spurned child. Your impatience makes drudgery of a simple task. ”

He pursed his lips. Impatience indeed.

There was a task at hand - he need not suffer the scoldings of some witch woman.

His clan harbored a long-running feud against Clan MacDonald. But it was Alasdair MacColla who'd raised the stakes, using his Royalist battles as an excuse to douse Scottish soil with the blood of untold numbers of Campbell sons.

And it was MacColla he'd destroy.

“I paid you good coin to help me ruin him. ”

Campbell's bravado was met with impenetrable silence. The witch merely set back to work, using her thumbs to mold the final touches on the clay figure lying before her. “You desire MacColla,” she said finally. “And so here he is. ”

She leaned back to reveal a crude effigy, the reds and browns of the Highland earth packed together in a featureless, calico likeness of a man.

“The corp creadha. The clay body of your enemy MacColla. ” She retrieved a handful of silken black strands from a pouch at her waist and systematically worked clumps into the crown of the tacky clay. “The hair of the sister recalls the man. ”

And then Finola struck fast, like a snake, reaching over to grab Campbell's hand, slicing his palm with a tiny steel blade.

“How dare ”

“You will silence your tongue, or I will exact your silence from you. ” For the second time, the witch's eyes met his.

Campbell's mouth went dry. The first traces of true fear seeped into him shuddering up his spine, leaving his blood chilled in its wake. He would remember his purpose here. Remember what he was about. He was a man of stature who could kill this Finola with but a word. And he would use whatever it took - use her - to ruin MacColla once and for all.

She spoke again, but this time her voice was hollow, otherworldly. “We come in the night to a place where three streams meet. ”

Squeezing his hand with surprising strength, Finola pulled Campbell close to the corp creadha, drizzling his blood over the eye sockets she'd hollowed from the clay. “That the enemy sees the blood of your hatred. ”

Finola pulled a bone from the sleeve of her cloak, dull and yellow brown where the meat was scraped clean from the blade of a lamb's shoulder. “We place the speal upon the heart of your enemy. ” Firelight licked red shadows along the surface of the bone, placed on the torso of the clay corpse. “That the enemy feels the blade of your vengeance. ”

Power thrilled up Campbell's spine, dissolving his apprehension. He would strike the deathblow to MacColla and Clan MacDonald. The blade of his vengeance. Campbell gave a small smile at the sound of it.

She took tongs from the dirt at her side and began to extract charred river stones from the flames, placing them one by one around the effigy. “That the enemy burns in the flames of your destruction. ”

Aye, burn MacColla. Campbell would annihilate him. Their clans had feuded over land and power for generations. But with the war that now raged through Ireland and the Highlands, the rivalry had curdled into something venomous. Something murderous. Burn.

Campbell had rid the west of most of the MacDonald vermin. He'd imprisoned MacColla's father and brother, and though they roamed free now, he'd exiled the rest of the clan to Ireland.

But he'd underestimated the middle son. MacColla had

returned for Campbell, sniffing him out like a dog, seeking his revenge. It was when he'd come to Campbell's own lands at Inveraray, savaging Campbell holdings and killing Campbell kinsmen, that he'd vowed to destroy MacColla once and for all.

But first he'd see him suffer.

Finola stiffened. With a sharp inhale, she rolled her eyes back and swayed, her breath coming in short pants. Rocking forward and back, forward and back, she intoned:

Cloaked in black of night. I call the elements. Hear me. By the blood of my enemy-

Chanting and quaking madly now, she swept her hand over the clay crown of the corpse's head.

Grant me dominion over fire. Grant me dominion over wind, Grant me dominion over earth, Grant me dominion over water.

Campbell was uneasy once more. That she'd taken his own blood for her ritual disturbed him, and his hand inched to the dirk at his side.

Uncertainty nagged at him, and dread that he'd stepped upon a path from which there was no return. It wouldn't sit well with his clan to know the lengths he went to. Black witchcraft was feared in the Highlands. He'd never known anybody who'd resorted to its use. Or at least none who'd confess to it.

But his noble Lowland peers, they'd simply have his head if they discovered he dallied in such devilish abominations.

I shall bathe in the lustral fire, I shall bathe in pools of wine.

Her hands waved over the flames, sweeping the gray smoke to her breast. She cast palmfuls of dirt and water toward the fire and it hissed angrily, shooting plumes of ghostly white smoke into the night. Campbell hastily pulled a handkerchief from his waist pocket, covering his mouth and nose to protect his body from inhaling such evil.

I shall bathe in the tears of mothers, I shall bathe in rivers of blood.

White sparks crackled out from the flames and whorled around them before winking into darkness. Campbell recoiled, looking around in panicked horror, his hand finally seizing the hilt of his weapon.

Finola stood suddenly, and the flames rose with her.

Campbell let go his dagger, whispering a prayer as he edged back from the fire.

The whites of her eyes filled her sockets and shone an eerie, translucent gray in the night. Her voice jumped higher, beseeching in a keening, inhuman voice.

Thine art the midnight beloved.

Thine art the black swan.

Thine art the prince of the night.

Hear me and grant dominion over the stars.

The witch fell to her knees and stared into the fire. Its hot blue center swelled, and yet its crest split into what seemed like thousands of yellow tips, all licking and dancing in a frenzy. She leaned close, as if she would breathe the flames into her, to welcome the fire into her nose and mouth like a lover.

It was going too far. He'd stop the witch before she summoned the devil himself to them. Campbell reached his hand out, felt the heat of the flames and the damp of her sweat radiate to his fingertips. One slight movement and he could push the woman in, baptize her in fire as any witch should be. It was his moment to go back, to choose a different path than that of evil. Her body would burn, and none would know of Campbell's flirtations with the dark arts.

Eyes tearing, her thin, dry lips cracked into a smile. “I see,” she whispered.

Campbell drew his arm back. He felt Finola's sudden serenity like a breeze in the night. And he found his own resolve. He would see as the witch saw. Use her powers just this once.

He'd wait for now. Her death would come in time.

Finola sightlessly took a wooden panel from the dirt. “So it is,” she rasped, and began frantically muttering an incantation.

Her tiny dagger glittered silver white in the moonlight as she hacked and carved at the small square of wood. Untouched by the heat, she retrieved a chunk of charred kindling from the edge of the fire and used it to etch lines and circles on the panel. She worked quickly, as if in a trance, sketching with a loose arm shapes that slowly coalesced into figures.

“I call for you she who is most able to shatter MacColla. ” Finola slammed the wooden panel down before Campbell, and this time he didn't flinch. It bore the image of a large man with a woman by his side, smudged in shades of gray and black.

“I call the woman who would be his bride. ”

Chapter One

Boston, present day.

Haley rubbed her finger over the blade. Metal was a curious material. It assumed the body's heat, and yet would never be mistaken for a living thing. She turned it in her hand. It was the oddest weapon she'd ever laid eyes on.
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