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Chapter 1

Western Highlands of Scotland, April 1629

 

As gloaming settled over the Highlands, Torr MacElrath drew up beside his friend Gavin MacTavish, who'd halted his horse abruptly near a dark wood. Their party of a dozen guards and clansmen paused behind them. The steel of Gavin's blade hissed as he withdrew it from the leather scabbard.

Following Gavin's fierce, ice-blue gaze, Torr surveyed the wood. "Did you see something?"

"A glimmer there." Gavin pointed his weapon.

Torr scrutinized the area, but naught moved amongst the mossy pine trunks and scrubby evergreens.

"Could be highwaymen wanting to steal our mounts." Their friend Brodie MacCain grumbled on Gavin's other side, his black brows lowering over his dark brown eyes.

"Or Alpin," Gavin said through clenched teeth.

Torr well knew Gavin's cousin Alpin was a greedy outlaw, wanting to steal everything Gavin and his father possessed, including the title, lands, and castle.

A near-inaudible snap of a dry twig reached Torr's ears.

The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as they discussed Alpin's motives. Regardless, someone—or several people—lurked in the bushy junipers that shifted in the wind.

Impatient, Torr leapt to the ground and strung his bow. "I'll flush them out." He retrieved an arrow from his quiver, nocked it, and let it fly.

A man yelled, shattering the quiet. Several kilted, armed men sprang from the bushes and rushed toward them.

"Slud!" Gavin growled.

A clamor arose from the guards as they bounded from their saddles and drew their weapons, instantly battle-ready.

After casting his bow aside, Torr withdrew his basket-hilt broadsword and grabbed the targe from his saddle just in time to block the stabbing blade of an approaching enemy. Spurred on by the need to defend himself and those around him, he slashed and thrust at one foe, then another.

In the melee, Torr recognized Alpin MacTavish, with his long, dirty-blond hair and blue eyes, as the leader of this ambush.

With the targe, Torr blocked another blade swinging at him and delivered a cut to an adversary's sword arm.

"Retreat!" Alpin commanded.

The men who remained on their feet fled back into the wood after their brutish leader. Two rivals lay sprawled upon the ground, blood pooling around them.

Torr glanced at Gavin, shocked to see the long, bloody cut down the left side of his face from forehead to chin. Blood saturated his pale linen shirt. "Gavin, your face!" Torr had never seen an injury quite like it.

"'Tis only a flesh wound," Gavin mumbled and turned away. "Anyone hurt?"

Thankfully, their guards had only sustained minor injuries.

"You ken who he is, aye?" Brodie stared down at one of the dead men upon the ground.

"Alpin called him Silas," Gavin said.

Brodie nodded. "I met him once. He's the MacRae chief."

Torr had never met him but well knew killing a chief, even in battle, was serious. While Gavin and Brodie discussed the dead enemy, Torr wondered who he'd struck with the arrow earlier. He headed into the wood and toward the low-growing junipers. A kilted man lay upon the mossy ground, a bloody arrow protruding from his throat.

Shock lanced through Torr. "Here's the one I shot!"

Gavin, Brodie, and some of the other men joined him in the wood.

"Saints! I had nay inkling you were such a deadly marksman," Gavin said.

Nor did Torr. He had never accomplished such a feat before.

"His sword is still in his hand, so he intended to kill us," Brodie growled.

'Twas true, and Torr didn't regret it. Still, he found it unsettling to kill a man he hadn't seen and whose name he didn't know.

"The MacRaes will seek revenge for their chief's death, even though 'twas a fair fight," Gavin said. "Alpin is such an adder; he will lie and claim we ambushed them."

Brodie gave a dark scowl. "I'll send for reinforcements from my clan."

"As will I." Torr drew the silver whisky flask from his doublet and handed it to Gavin. The sword slash on his face had bled more in the past few minutes. "You must be in pain."

They needed to rush Gavin to Caithmore Castle, where the healer could stitch his wound before he lost an excessive amount of blood.

 

***

 

The following sennight was an uproar of activity as Torr and his four guards returned to his clan's home, Castle Dubhuisge, and asked his older brother, the chief, to loan Gavin a couple of dozen soldiers to combat the MacRaes when they sought revenge. Angus was more than willing to do so. Though the MacTavishes had a significant number of soldiers, reinforcements from their allies were welcome. The MacRaes might drag some of their own allies into this conflict. 'Twas impossible to guess how many would eventually show up. Brodie did the same, sending guards to Farspag to retrieve most of his clansmen.

In the barmkin of Caithmore Castle, Torr glanced around at the hundred and fifty soldiers practicing their sword-fighting skills and sharpening their blades amongst much camaraderie.

The slash down the side of Gavin's face had been stitched up and appeared to be healing, though it would leave a conspicuous scar. Most fortunate of all, the wound had not injured his eye.

"Riders approaching!" shouted one of the lookouts in the gatehouse.

Torr's focus sharpened, and his muscles tensed. A conflict was impending.

"How many, Alan?" Gavin called.

"I only see a half dozen."

Torr frowned. That didn't sound right. It had to be a trick.

Gavin's father, Lunn, the MacTavish chief, concurred. He and Gavin proceeded up the steps into the tower.

Hanging back and peering through the portcullis, Torr watched the six riders move closer. His gaze scanned the scrubby purple heather and prickly green gorse bushes behind them for additional soldiers, but he saw no further movement.

"They're plotting something, certain sure," Brodie grumbled with a deadly scowl.

"Without doubt."

Two riders separated from the others and rode forward slowly. They stopped several yards away from the heavy iron and wood portcullis. Torr was surprised to see that one, with a thin frame, wore black skirts and a cloak. Bright ginger hair shone from beneath the large cowl.

"Her ladyship wishes to speak to Gavin MacTavish!" the burly guard beside her shouted. He wore metal-studded leather armor.

"Who is she?" Torr asked, keeping his voice low.

Brodie's dark eyes narrowed as he peered into the distance. "Looks like Silas MacRae's mother, Lady Wilona MacRae."

Torr felt sorry for the woman, that she'd lost her son. But he had been a reckless, depraved chief.

After Gavin descended the steps, he, Torr, and Brodie moved closer to the portcullis, their targes held before them for protection.

"Gavin MacTavish," the woman yelled.

"Aye."

"Torr MacElrath!"

A shock went through him. "How does she ken my name?"

"Alpin told her," Gavin muttered.

"And Brodie MacCain!" she shouted. "You three beasts murdered my son. Justice will prevail. I have placed a curse upon each of you. Your true beastly nature will emerge."

"What nonsense is she spewing?" Brodie growled.

"The harpy belongs in Bedlam." Torr no longer felt sorry for her. She had gone mad if she thought Torr and his two friends had no right to defend themselves in a surprise attack.

"We did nay murder your son, Lady MacRae," Gavin roared. "He, Alpin, and their men ambushed us in the wood."

"Liar! I refuse to listen to you vilify my son. And if you retaliate against me or try to kill me, my powerful spell will ensnare all of you four-fold. I have spoken my peace." She and the guard turned and rode away. The rest of their party followed.

"What the hell?" Brodie said. "Is she a witch?"

"If she is, I did nay ken of it," Gavin said.

What was the MacRaes' secret strategy? Why had their new chief not come along? "Mayhap 'tis a trick to disarm you," Torr said. "She may send troops back in a few days to attack after we leave."

Low dark clouds hung overhead, their gloom blocking most of the sunlight, and a sharp, icy breeze swirled through the courtyard. The mad woman's sinister words about a curse replayed through his mind.

Torr and his clansmen remained at Caithmore several days longer, but no MacRaes appeared. The scouts reported that none lingered in the wood or surrounding area.

Finally, Torr took his leave and returned with his fellow clansmen to MacElrath lands and Castle Dubhuisge. Still, the strange lady's vile words about a curse haunted him. What had she meant? Did she possess some dark power?

 

***

 

Just over a week later, Torr, Angus, and a few of their clansmen returned from a stag hunt at sunset. As they left the stables and crossed the bailey, a strange and unexpected battle rage seized Torr's mind and body. He had no reason to feel angry or violent. Had he suddenly developed second sight, which was warning him of danger? His muscles tensing, he paused and glanced around the bailey, paved with cobblestones and enclosed within granite walls but detected no threat. A few of the clansmen and servants milled about as usual.

"What's wrong?" Angus stopped beside him, his pale brown eyes concerned. "You look ready to kill someone."

Torr shook his head, for he had no notion. The tension in his chest grew, along with his fury, and his body felt stronger with each passing moment.

An explosion burst through him, the light of it blinding him briefly and the painful, fiery energy propelling him forward.

A moment later, the sharp ache drained away, but the heat remained. He had never felt such power and strength infusing his muscles—such energy. The need for action overwhelmed him. If he couldn't race headlong across the moor, he would go mad. He sprinted across the bailey, but strangely, his feet slipped over the cobblestones. Glancing down, he was shocked to see a horse's front hooves and sleek white fur covering the legs.

What the hell?

Glancing aside, he found a long white mane at the edge of his vision.

Had he experienced an apoplexy and gone mad? Passed out and hit his head, spawning the strangest dream imaginable—that he was a horse?

Angus and his clansmen stood gawking at him, their mouths agape and eyes wide.

The chaotic rage that churned within Torr wrecked his reasoning ability. With an unhinged, roaring neigh, he reared and galloped around the bailey, his hooves thundering.

The clansmen scattered, yelling and fleeing for cover. Even Angus backed up several paces. "Torr? That cannot be you!" He glanced around as if looking for him. "What happened?"

Unable to suppress his boundless energy, Torr flung his front hooves into the air. Damnation, how he craved the freedom of running across a moor at breakneck speed. He approached the portcullis, turned, and kicked his back hooves against it, near knocking it from the chains.

"Open the gate!" Angus shouted.

The guards in the gatehouse obeyed the command, but 'twas still a slow process. Torr bolted toward the opposite stone wall, rearing and bucking. By the time he returned, the guards had raised the portcullis halfway. He ducked under it and bounded through.

He breathed a sigh of relief as the chill night breeze blew over his heated body. He was not running from anything. He was running toward sanity, trying to expend the overwhelming power of his fury. He indulged in a mad gallop at great speed, his hooves pounding across the earth. When the glimmering water of the loch came into view, a fierce craving for its wet coolness possessed him. He might die if he couldn't submerge himself there.

From the bank, he held his breath and leapt. He knew the water to be deep, for he swam here in summer. His robust equine body produced a tremendous splash as it hit the water, and he sank into the refreshing cold. The scorching ferocity subsiding, he paddled with all four legs, then raised his head above the water's surface.

'Twas his first moment of sanity since the strangeness had besieged him.

What the devil had happened? What was he?

After a long swim, he headed toward the opposite bank, then waded from the water onto the flat beach, the tiny round shingles shifting beneath his feet… hooves.

He shook the water off his mane and snorted.

How did he even know how to do that?

He stared down at his huge hooves, turning his head aside to see better. Strangely, he could see well in the near darkness. Next, he glanced back over his shoulder to see that he did indeed have a horse's body.

Hell! What happened to me? He tried to say the words aloud, but the sound coming from his mouth was naught but a nicker.

Then, the answer came to him.

"I have placed a curse upon each of you. Your true beastly nature will emerge." 'Twas what that madwoman Wilona MacRae had said.

So, his true beastly nature was a horse? He glanced at the loch. Horses didn't enjoy swimming as much as he had moments ago.

Nay!

A kelpie?

Were kelpies real or mere legend?

Either way, he had to figure out how to reverse the curse. 'Twas baffling and too complicated to think of now. Besides, he was hungry.

He trotted away from the loch. Inexplicably, the scent of grass lured him to a spot where his horse loved to graze. Torr nipped off the tender new blades of grass and chewed. Saints! 'Twas juicy and the most delicious flavor on earth. Even though the idea of eating grass didn't appeal to his human mind, his mouth couldn't get enough of the green lusciousness.

"Torr!" Angus' shout echoed through the night air from the castle's ramparts.

Torr lifted his head and pricked his ears as the sound traveled a vast distance on the spring breeze. What must his brother think? And the clan? They had witnessed all the mayhem of him transforming.

As soon as Torr had returned from Caithmore days ago, he'd told Angus about the witch's supposed curse. But since they'd seen no sign of it, Torr had discounted it and labeled her mad.

But the witch had not lied.

Would Angus expel him from the clan? Give him a clean, warm stall to sleep in during the winter?

Mayhap, this was all a fantastical nightmare.

Eventually, Angus stopped shouting, but Torr couldn't return to the castle now. As silence surrounded him, he realized he missed his brothers and clan. The companionship and conversation. Would he have to live out here alone, in the wilderness?

The moon rose, reflecting off the loch's mirror-like surface. He waded into the shallows to drink and saw the reflection of a white horse in the dark water. His eyes shone pale green, much the color of his human eyes. But, of course, his eyes had never glowed like this. He turned his head aside, still examining his reflection. This couldn't be real, could it? How was it physically possible for him to transform into a beast?

That damnable witch and her evil curse! Had Gavin and Brodie also been turned into kelpies? Or some other beasts?

Torr left the water and wandered onto a hill where he could see the castle's torchlight in the distance. He missed the boisterous camaraderie of the great hall during supper, and he missed his comfortable bedchamber.

Without ever realizing he'd gone to sleep standing up, Torr awoke as a bolt of pain struck him. Groaning, he found himself on the rocky ground, his knees and elbows skinned.

"What in blazes?" He looked at his skin in the rosy dawn light. "I'm human again! Thank the saints!" he shouted, his words echoing.

He shoved himself upright, grateful beyond measure to be rid of the kelpie form.

Thank you, God! Taking a deep breath, he trotted down the hillside, the cool morning breeze chilling his bare skin. The sharp stones bit into his bare feet, but he didn't care. Those massive hooves had vanished, to his profound relief.

As he neared the castle's gatehouse, he couldn't see the guard. "Rupert! Bring me a plaid!"

The bearded guard opened the shutters and peered out, his dark eyes wide. "Sir Torr? Is that truly you?"

"Of course 'tis me. Who else would I be?"

Rupert hesitated. "But—but last night…"

"Never mind that. I'm a man again. 'Tis all that matters."

"Thanks be to God."

"Indeed." And Torr prayed he wouldn't turn into that beast again.

Rupert disappeared inside the tower, his footsteps thudding on the steps.

A minute or two later, he returned and shoved a plaid, belt, and shirt through a small opening in the portcullis. "'Tis the clothing you dropped last night."

"I appreciate it." Torr yanked the shirt over his head, then carelessly belted the plaid into place. As long as he was covered, he didn't care about tidiness.

The guard unlocked the lesser gate beside the portcullis and allowed Torr inside.

Rupert must have sent one of the lads for Angus, for his brother now hastened down the outside steps from the great hall.

"What the devil happened last night?" Angus met Torr in the middle of the bailey, his reddish-brown beard stark against his pale skin. His troubled gaze scanned over Torr.

"It had to be the witch's curse I told you about."

"Saints. I had nay inkling such wizardry existed," Angus hissed.

"Nor did I."

"Do you think 'tis over?"

"I pray it is."

Finnian, an ancient man with a long white beard and a dark cloak, approached, then stopped beside them. He narrowed his perceptive gaze upon Torr as if analyzing him. Their grandfather's cousin was a physician and inventor.

"Finnian has agreed to help you if this shift should happen again," Angus said.

"Do you know of curses?" Torr asked the elder.

Finnian lifted a bushy white brow. "My mother had the sight."

Torr wondered how that would help him. "And?"

"'Haps I can figure out how to undo the curse, lad. That is, if you turn into a beast again."

'Twas highly probable he would. Why would the witch curse him for only one night?

Torr found his suspicions correct. Every evening at sunset, he shifted into kelpie form, then back into a man at dawn. He sent missives to his friends and learned that, because of the curse, Gavin transformed into a hawk at daybreak, then back into a man at sunset. Brodie, on the other hand, was cursed into the form of a selkie and stayed out at sea most of the time. Would the three of them be able to remain friends and visit again?

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