Maiden from the Mist, p.1
Maiden from the Mist
Tanya Anne Crosby
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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced or transmitted in any manner whatsoever, electronically, in print, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of both Oliver-Heber Books and Tanya Anne Crosby, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Maiden from the Mist Copyright © Tanya Anne Crosby
Cover art © Tanya Anne Crosby
Inside cover: art by Novel Art Creations; model: Michael Foster c/o VJ Dunraven Productions
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Praise for Tanya Anne Crosby
“Rich with historical detail and brimming with passion and high-stakes romantic adventure, this newest addition to the Guardians of the Stone series is a spectacular achievement in Scottish romance. The story and characters will enthrall readers from beginning to end. I absolutely loved it.”
USA Today bestselling author, Julianne MacLean
“Crosby builds worlds that immediately draw you in, with multi-dimensional characters and rich, detailed story lines. Absolutely riveting!”
Kathryn Le Veque, USA Today Bestselling Author
“Crosby’s characters keep readers engaged...”
“Crosby pens a tale that touches your soul and lives forever in your heart.”
Sherrilyn Kenyon #1 NYT Bestselling Author
“Tanya Anne Crosby is a master of her genre …”
Laurin Wittig, Bestselling Author
“Love, honor, suspense, passion... all the good things we love in a Highlander Romance.”
Suzan Tisdale, bestselling author of Rowan's Lady
“Enchanting landscapes, breathtaking betrayal, and heartwarming passion herald Tanya Anne Crosby's triumphant return to ancient Scotland.”
Glynnis Campbell, Bestselling Author
“My Queen of historical fiction for over two decades and she still leaves me breathless and wanting more!”
Barb Massabrook, reader since 1992
Guardians of the Stone
Guardians of the Stone
Also by Tanya Anne Crosby
About the Author
Guardians of the Stone
Also available as Audiobooks
Once Upon a Highland Legend
Maiden from the Mist
The Highland Brides
The MacKinnon’s Bride
On Bended Knee
Angel Of Fire
For Barb Massabrook, a true warrior maiden.
“The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best.
W.B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight
Come the destiny star rising o’er the Minch,
leading a sweet maid through the mist.
With lang, saft hair and skin so fair,
she’ll tempt a lion from his lair.
Prophecy of the Maiden
Dunrònaigh Keep, the Isle of Rònaigh, November 1135
Caden Mac Swein seized his grandsire’s halberd from its brace upon the wall. He stepped back to swing the heavy weapon, recalibrating its weight. “How many?”
“Fifty, near as we can tell.”
He swung the halberd yet again, cursing beneath his breath. Made of sturdy ash wood, the haft of the great axe was more than four feet long. The blade was a solid thirty-three inches of iron, edged with fine steel. In total, the weapon measured six feet long and weighed two stone. Only a man of Caden’s size and strength could ever hope to wield it, and anyone within an arm’s length of his swing could attest to his prowess with the weapon.
If they still had a head to speak.
He smoothed his callused fingers over the sharp blade. Far more than the great sword, the Viking weapon was his defense of choice. It once belonged to his great, great-grandsire, Swein of the North. “Beast” it was named, and once he set the Beast in motion, it unerringly met its mark.
Having dressed himself for battle, Wee Davie came rushing into the hall, bearing their father’s sword. At thirteen, the boy was oversmall for his age, and the length of the claymore was almost as tall as he was. “They’re gatherin’ by the Giant’s Cave,” he announced. “Let us go smite them from our land!”
Caden’s brow furrowed. The Giant’s Cave was a natural sea cave, with a ceiling so high it formed an echo. It was deep enough to conceal more than fifty men. If any were hiding within, their numbers could easily be misjudged. It was crucial they know precisely how many men they would face today. They were not so well-numbered that they could afford to take a chance.
“Have they gone inside?” he asked his brother, realizing Wee Davie must have spied them from the high tower. Built by the ancients, Dunrònaigh Keep was “laird of the North Sea.” Its enduring presence defied even the storm kelpies, who ruled the waters of the Skotlandsfjörð.
“Nay,” his brother said.
“Good.” Caden nodded. “Good.” To their great fortune, the cave by the shore was haunted and cursed. Most living souls would never venture within, where bones of hapless men and women still clung to stalagmites near the ceiling. Trapped by the rising tide, their bodies had been borne too high to ever retrieve them. Now, clinging to their berths, even in death, they awaited with shivering bones for the sea to reclaim them. And reclaim them it would, for theirs was a vengeful sea. No man who’d ever traversed the Skotlandsfjörð could ever claim the Blue Men weren’t the fiercest of foes. The Scots of the Western Isles all feared them, but clearly not enough to keep their filthy boots off Caden’s shore.
“Let’s go! I’m ready,” Davie announced, though he struggled to lift their father’s claymore. Eying his youngest brother with keen displeasure, Caden said, “Nay ye’re no’, Davie.”
The boy’s helm fell over wide blue eyes. “I am,” he argued. “Ye canna keep me from it, Caden. I’m a mon grown.” He cast a glance at Alec, hoping to win the captain’s favor, knowing full well he was the only man Caden ever listened to, but Alec wisely turned away. “Today, I fight like a mon aside my brethren,” Davie maintained. “I will fight beside you, brother!”
Caden softened his tone. “Nay, Davie boy. Ye’re of better use to me here.” Here. Meaning, inside the keep. Away from so many bloodthirsty blades. For all their past glories, Caden had once been the third of five sons. Only he and Wee Davie remained. Their forefather, Conn Cétch
The youth pouted, his jaw set tautly in a freckled face.
“Davie,” Caden reasoned. “One of us must stay and guard the keep. ’Tis an honor, my brother. Dunrònaigh Keep is the heart of Rònaigh, and the glory of our people. If we should be overtaken, who will lead them to the ships? Who will command them if I am slain?”
“Gonadh! ’Tis a woman’s job ye would leave me to, Caden.”
Caden laid a hand upon his brother’s shoulder. “To guard the chieftain’s seat and all we hold dear? Nay, my brother. ’Tis a task befitted only a chief.”
Unconvinced, Davie screwed his face. “Then do it yourself!”
Caden’s fingers tightened about his brother’s shoulder. He hardened his voice, as well as his heart. “Dùin do ghob.” Shut your gob. “One of us must lead this fight, and until the day ye can wield this halberd in my hand, ye’ll no’ be the one to do so. D’ y’ hear me?”
Wee Davie lifted his chin. “Please, Caden,” he begged. “Please. I’m a mon now. Please!”
“Nay.” Caden scowled. “A mon need never claim he’s a mon. My resolve remains.”
Forsooth, there were not even noble women remaining to strengthen alliances abroad. This decision was not open to discussion. His brother would not fight this day. He would remain safely within the keep, so he might live to fight another day. He and Davie met eye to eye. To make his point, Caden handed the Beast to his brother and the heavy weapon sank with a thud to the floor, the iron spikes chipping the stone. It barely missed Davie’s foot, and the clatter it made rivaled the echo in the Giant’s Cave.
Davie stared at the Viking halberd, his brow furrowing with anger.
No more need be said. Davie might be scowling, but Caden had effectively made his point. The youth allowed Caden to lift the halberd from the floor without a word. And he was still glaring as Caden made for the door. All the men waiting in the hall fell in line behind him. His captain hurried to keep step aside him. Only after they’d quit the hall, Caden turned and said, “See my brother remains inside.”
“I shall try.”
“Nay,” Caden said, his voice resonating like a clap of thunder. “You will do it, Alec. If my last remaining brother comes to harm this day, I will take your head.” He brandished the halberd in both hands with great meaning.
It was a bold threat, one Caden Mac Swein would never carry out on his most trusted friend and advisor, but Alec understood his laird’s resolve better than most. At all costs, Caden would protect the youngest remaining Mac Swein from the evils of war. He, himself, might bear a dozen scars from his chin to his toes, but rather Caden should bear them than Wee Davie. In the end, it would be Davie Mac Swein who’d lead their clan, and Caden wouldn’t bear the loss of another brother. Even so, not even Alec had the luxury to remain inside the tower, for their numbers were far too diminished after so many skirmishes with the MacLeods. And yet, if he must, it would be a good day to die. The sun shone bright in a fair blue sky. The sea itself rumbled all about, turning November froth to ice crystal.
High on Dunrònaigh’s ancient tower, the Mac Swein standard whipped with a vengeful breeze—a lion rampant holding his bow. The cat’s powerful jowls snapped, and the wind was a snarl from its toothy grin.
Down by the sea cave, a throng of usurpers waited to be ousted, their steely weapons glinting maliciously against a merciless sun.
Three more boats navigated the foaming surf, their numbers increasing by the hour. Fortunately, there was only one place they could land: on the small narrow beach below. Anywhere else, and they suffered the possibility of smashing their skiffs against Rònaigh’s cliffs.
On such a wee island, their military force was beggarly, but every man and woman knew how to defend themselves. Their advantage was the sea, and the simple fact that, from the tower, one could see every inch of the isle and the sea beyond. Their greatest advantage today would be a swift course of action.
“Di’ ye see a banner?”
“Greedy buggers,” Caden said, with a snarl. “I warrant ’tis Macleod yet again. He craves this isle more than he does his firstborn son.”
“’Tis a point of pride,” Alec said. “He wouldst prove to your sire—even six feet below—that he was the better man.”
“Amadain na galla.” Fucking idiot.
Seventy of Caden’s men waited outside the keep. He raised his grandfather’s halberd to the bright blue heavens. “For Dunrònaigh!” he shouted.
“For Dunrònaigh!” they returned, and together they marched down Dunrònaigh’s hill, sweeping toward the beach, where the sea churned with a ferocity born of the North wind. Winter was nigh, and nevertheless, despite the cold, Caden shed his cloak, and with the cloak of his forefathers, he shed the last vestiges of his civility. Icy wind awakened his nerve.
His men followed suit, wanting naught to impede them in battle. Like their Viking predecessors, they welcomed the berserker in their souls, each man prepared to defend this land until their dying breath.
As they marched down, they shouted ancient war cries, slicing shining weapons through the air, calling down the fury of the Blue Men—those willful storm kelpies who guarded the Minch and the Northern seas beyond. Every step was made easier by the pitch of the land, spilling them downward, like a deadly flow of molten silver. From the highest vantage, atop Dunrònaigh Keep, it would appear as though a human wave plunged toward the deep-blue sea.
By contrast, the usurpers came trudging up the hillside, weighted in their every step, although greed and bloodlust fueled their march.
“For Dunrònaigh!” Caden shouted one last time.
“For Dunrònaigh!” his men returned.
The sun glinted off helms and swords as the two forces collided on Dunrònaigh’s hill.
The battle engaged. The roar was deafening, the clang of metal relentless. Blood sprayed the land, a macabre rain that covered every blade of grass and turned the hillside red.
Battling tirelessly, Caden deflected incoming blades, swinging his halberd like a man possessed, felling all who came within reach of the Beast. The battle raged until all who remained were the fiercest of the lot.
Caden pressed on until his arms grew heavy. He fought even after ice-cold metal sliced through his shoulder. Pain shot like lightning through his brain. Black rage overtook him, for if he failed today, Wee Davie would be the one to pay the price. But nay! He would not fail his brother.
At precisely the instant when he might have taken another blade, Alec deflected the blow. The tip of Alec’s sword entered the base of the man’s skull, protruding through his nostrils, spraying blood over Caden’s chest. The man fell to the ground, his blood mingling with those who had fallen before him. The hillside was a carpet of red, so oily now with blood that it took some effort to remain upright.
Roaring his vengeance, Caden raised his halberd yet again, finding strength in his brother’s fate. By God, they would cut him down, limb for limb, before he stopped here today. And yet, even as he raged, two more boats maneuvered to land upon his shores.
More warriors trampled up the hillside to adjoin the battle. Realizing how swiftly the tide could turn, Caden renewed himself, fortifying his resolve. With another war cry to the heavens, he swept through the melee, striking where he could, aiding his men, one by one, and each life he took fed his madness.
Blood ran in rivulets down his arms, oiling his grip, but Caden embraced his axe as an extension of his being, swinging with all his fury and all his might. He and the Beast were one. But, nay, even heroes were slain in battle and war was no man’s friend. There was a stab at his right calf, and he stumbled forward, howling in pain. The Beast turned before him, alive w
The sun shone down, glinting off the silver metal of a man’s helm, blinding Caden, but the halberd stayed its course, sweeping a deadly path before him, cutting through flesh and bone. Caden heard a sound that gave him pause, his brother’s voice, but he was not quick enough to ken from whence it came.
Davie’s blue eyes met his for the briefest instant—prideful in his accomplishment. He’d cut down the man who’d pierced Caden’s leg. He’d stabbed him right through the chest with their father’s claymore, and the man fell short of his intended aim—Caden’s heart.
Caden’s halberd had no understanding of this wondrous achievement. His brother stood before him, grinning broadly, waiting for Caden’s blessing… waiting for him to admit he was wrong, that he was, indeed, a man.
Precious seconds passed in slow motion. An innocent to the ways of battle, Davie did not ken to step aside, and Caden could not stop the fateful swing of his blade. Once more, his halberd crushed through flesh and bone, severing Wee Davie’s head in one fell swoop. The head flew, but Caden never saw it land. A curtain of black swept before his eyes, and he stood imprisoned in darkness, listening to the screams of men dying all about.