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Warrior of the highlands, p.5
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       Warrior of the Highlands, p.5

         Part #3 of Highlands series by Veronica Wolff  
Page 5

 

  MacColla worked his way through two narrow pantries and a buttery before discovering the padlocked door. The lock was a rusted old thing, and he wasted a few minutes jiggling his dirk through the keyhole in an effort to spring it. Growing impatient, he finally just drew his arm back and sheared the hasp from the door with the butt of his weapon.

  Jean cried out at the intrusion, and the sound near broke his heart. His sister stood in the pitch-black of a dank vaulted cellar, squinting and blinking her eyes rapidly to adjust to what was merely the faint ambient light of the kitchen.

  Fury boiled in him.

  “It's me, lass. Alasdair. ” He ran to her, lifting her easily into his arms, and the sight of the filth that soaked the hem of her dress made something in him snap. “Och, Jeannie… bonny wee Jeannie. ” Anguish tightened his voice as he scanned her body for signs of misuse.

  She broke then, and her tears came in a shuddering rush. Jean tucked her face as tightly to him as possible, nuzzling into the crook of his neck as if she could close some fundamental breach between her life as she'd known it and what she'd just endured. Despite her shuddering body and staccato breaths, Jean's sobs were nearly silent.

  The sight of his sister, broken in his arms and hiding her brave tears, hardened MacColla's resolve to a white-hot fury. The Campbell had disgraced his father, exiled his family to Ireland, and besieged his Highlands in a wolfish grab for power.

  He'd once vowed to destroy the man. But now MacColla found he'd a taste for the blood of all Campbells, and it choked him like bile he needed to cleanse from his throat.

  Chapter Three

  “You still at work?” Haley hated talking on the cell phone and had to plug her other ear to hear the crackle of Sarah's voice over the intermittent rumble and screech of the subway.

  “Yeah, I'm just finishing up. How's the game?”

  “I left,” Haley replied. “I'm headed back your way. I'm at Broadway Station now. Can you let me back into the storage area? I need to see something. ”

  “You're still in Southie? Hale, I'm about to leave. The museum closed, what, an hour ago?”

  “I'll be there in thirty, forty minutes tops, okay?” The inscription from that dagger spun in her head, and she knew she wouldn't be free of it until she checked it out again.

  “From Broadway? More like forty, fifty minutes. Can't this wait til tomorrow?”

  Haley let the question hang, hoping her friend would take pity.

  “Okay,” Sarah finally said. “I'll wait at the desk. Just knock when you get here. But I'm giving you ten minutes. Tops. ”

  “You're the best. Be there soon. ” She flipped the phone shut and looked up. Her broad smile froze, then slowly bled from her face. Two guys stared at her standing just too close to feel right.

  The face of one was hardened into an accusatory stare. The other seemed slackened, by drugs or drink, his eyes halflidded beneath his off-kilter ball cap. He nodded at her. as if they'd had some prior agreement. His mouth was open slightly, and Haley flashed back to the memory of two other men.

  So many years ago now. They'd jumped her, on her way home from a late study group on the Quad. One hadn't bothered with Haley, intent on rifling through her purse and computer bag. She'd skimped for a year to buy that computer, but couldn't summon a care for the thing. It was the knife that had seared into her memory. The knife and the man who held it.

  His mouth had also parted slightly, as if about to taste, hovering close over her face as he'd put his switchblade to her throat.

  Ice prickled through her veins at the memory, and Haley sent up a silent thanks to the students who'd swept down Chauncy Street moments later. They'd been chatting and laughing, in their own world, never even seeing Haley. It had been enough to scare the men, though, sending them running back into the night.

  But not before her attacker had rolled off her, dragging his blade in a shallow slice along her flesh as he went. Leaving her to feel the surreal warmth of her own blood trickling down the side of her neck, dripping slowly onto the dirt.

  She'd been an undergrad, an innocent sophomore then. A girl who'd never been scared of the dark. Rather, she used to love walking the campus late at night, thrilling at the dramatic shadows that played across all those grand brick buildings, those libraries and halls that had housed so many great scholars before her.

  But Haley was innocent no more. That night, in that moment, an exaggerated sense of how truly vulnerable she'd always been lodged in her like a tumor. A constant, festering thing that her body now harbored. She began training with her father soon thereafter. Weights, workouts, self-defense, with a rigor fed from the nagging sensation that she'd somehow escaped some worse fate. That, so far, she'd only avoided life's certain dangers by some strange fluke of the universe.

  She'd been a history major, but her focus morphed into a morbid fascination with historical arms and battles. She delved headlong into the world of old guns and knives. Though they felt safe in their historical distance, those objects had nonetheless been designed for destruction. And it was as though, in studying a thing, she could cling to the hope of controlling it, of making sense of what had happened to her. Mastering it.

  Just as she would master this situation now. She moderated her breathing, trying to slow the shallow hammering of her heart. It was her first brush with a potential threat since that night years ago, and she wouldn't let panic crush her.

  She turned on her heel, clutching the strap of her bag tight across her chest, and walked to the other end of the platform. The T station suddenly seemed empty. She didn't know where everyone could be. She glanced down the tunnel: a homeless man slumped against the wall. Up the tunnel: a woman clutching tight to the plump hand of a young child, pretending not to see Haley.

  She quickened her pace, and her footsteps echoed unnaturally loud off the white -and maroon-tiled pillars that studded the station.

  They followed her, slowly. She could feel them. And she could hear the clink of the thick silver chain worn by the one with the hard stare, looped from his belt into his pocket.

  Nearing the end of the platform, she stopped, pretending to study the route map hung on the wall. Her eyes focused on a bit of graffiti along the edge. Adrenalin rushed through her, jittering up the backs of her legs, humming at the crown of her head. She struggled to remember something, anything, her father had taught her about self-defense.

  With great intent, she breathed hard from her diaphragm. Forced herself to concentrate on the workouts her father had put her through. Those methodical, deliberate movements they'd executed over and over.

  Block, punch, sweep, back to center. Again and again until fighting had become as instinctive as breathing.

  Heart slowing, Haley stood a little taller. She felt grounded, her feet connected solidly to the concrete beneath them. Legs solid, poised but loose.

  The low rumble and clack of a distant train filled the tunnel. She felt the men recede. The subway screeched to a slow stop and Haley heard the whispered slide of the doors opening. Snippets of sound swirled around her. Conversations, the footfalls of people exiting the subway.

  She turned and ducked into the nearest car, not quite sure if the foreign emotion heightening her senses was profound relief, or disappointment.

  * * *

  Still unsettled, Haley took the longer, better-lit route through Harvard Yard back to the Fogg. Despite herself, she'd jogged the whole way from the station, then banged harder than she'd meant to on the locked door.

  “Easy, cowgirl. ” Sarah's baffled irritation was visible through the glass panes of the front entrance. She unbolted it and let Haley in.

  “Seriously, Haley. Ten minutes tops. ” was her only greeting. Sarah quickly slid the bolt back into place. “It's not cool for me to be letting you in after hours. They'd have my hide. ”

  Only a few scattered lights illuminated the interior. If she didn't already know the place like the back of her hand, Haley thought she'd be creeped out by the long shadows that crawled along the walls.

  “Well, go ahead. ” Sarah nodded to the stairs. “I left it unlocked for you. ”

  Eager to see the weapon once more, she took the steps two at a time. The door sealed shut behind her and it was like entering a vault. Because preventing dust and moisture was paramount, the storage room featured its own filtration system, and not much sound penetrated the windowless walls. For all Haley knew, she could be in a submarine on the bottom of the ocean, that was how disconnected she felt from the rest of the world when lost in thought in the archives.

  Tossing her bag to the floor, she quickly retrieved the combination dagger/gun from its cabinet and sat at the table. She reverently unfolded the rectangle of lint-free cloth, and looked immediately at the hilt to study the inscription.

  “For JG, with love from Ma ”-

  Sending up an apology to whichever museum gods might be looking on in horror, Haley buffed the inscription, this time using the thicker cloth it had been stored in.

  Haley worked quickly. If Sarah caught her doing more than just eyeing the piece, it was her hide that would be had.

  -g-

  She glanced at the clock. Seven minutes before Sarah cameknocking. But she had to know. She shook the ache from her hand, and rubbed with renewed vigor.

  -da.

  Haley gasped. Magda. “For JG, with love from Magda. ”

  It could only be one couple. Not much was known about the woman, but James Graham was one of the most famous military heroes in Scottish history.

  No. That was way too easy. James Graham had died on the gallows before this weapon was even made. Period.

  But could she argue reasonable doubt? It might make for an interesting paper.

  There were any number of women in the world named Magda. Though it wasn't a very Scottish name, there had tohave been others. The weapon surely just belonged to some random nobleman.

  She turned it in her hands. Stroked the filigree. It wasn't just that it was a rare and gorgeous piece. It felt… important somehow.

  What if?

  People did survive hangings. She loved the old Scottish tales of people who'd somehow survived the gallows only to awaken confused and more than a little sore. Could Graham have somehow survived his own death, like “half-hangit Maggie Dickson”, who bolted upright from her cart, or James Spalding, who clawed out from his own shallow grave?
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