Read Flame Online

Authors: May McGoldrick

Tags: #Romance, #Scotland, #Historical Romance, #Medieval, #Scottish Highlands, #highlander, #philippa gregory, #diana gabaldon, #gothic romance, #jane eyre, #gothic mystery, #ghost story

Flame

 

 

 

 

Flame

 

by

 

May McGoldrick

 

 

 

 

ISBN
0451408071

 

Copyright © 2009 by Nikoo K. and James A.
McGoldrick

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any
review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in
part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now
known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and
recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is
forbidden without the written permission of the publisher: May
McGoldrick Books, PO Box 665, Watertown, CT 06795.

 

First Published by Topaz, an imprint of
Dutton Signet,

a division of Penguin Books, USA, Inc.,
November 1998

 

Smashwords Edition,
License Notes

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To Selma E. McDonnell

and to

Colleen Admirand, Jodi Allen, Edith Bron
Chiong, Sharon Hendricks, and Carol Palermo

for having faith in us every step of the
way

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

Ironcross Castle, The Northern Highlands

May 1527

 

 

As the full moon began to rise from behind
the distant brae, the shadows stretched up like gnarled, grasping
fingers on the pale walls of the castle.

The shadow makers, on a nearer hill, began to
descend from the summit, forming a line and moving toward the
fortress. The sound of low chanting that had come in whispers on
the ragged breeze died as the last of the dark figures disappeared
amid the tumbled piles of slab-like rock in the gorge beneath the
castle walls. At the bottom of the gorge, the waters of the loch
shimmered in the moonlight.

Moments later, far beneath the castle’s
massive walls, a heavy iron lock clicked, and a squat, thick, oaken
door swung open.

In through the entryway the cloaked figures
filed, silent as death. One after another they took unlit candles
from a stone recess just inside the door. No light illuminated the
darkness, but the line of figures continued relentlessly along the
stone arched passageway.

A hundred paces further, the leader turned
and proceeded down a half dozen steps into a vast, almost circular
room. The open space of the vault was broken with pillars that rose
into branch-like arches, supporting a low ceiling blackened with
smoke and ash. On the far side of the room, beyond an unlit pyre of
reeds and sticks, a stone table stood, an ornate cup and an oil
lamp upon it.

One by one, the cloaked figures approached
the table and lit their candles at the lamp. Then, moving to the
crypts that lay along the perimeter of the vault, they all touched
their foreheads to the stone before returning and forming a wide
circle.

Hidden in the deep shadows of a niche not a
half dozen steps from the stone table, a ghostly figure peered out
at the ritual. The leader of the cult picked up the cup and then
moved to her place beside the pyre. The onlooker pressed back
further into the blackness as the leader’s eyes swept around the
circle.

“Sisters!” the woman called, waiting until
she had the group’s rapt attention. “For the souls of these dead
who lie here entombed, we invoke the Power.”

“Mater!” the women’s voices proclaimed in
response. “We invoke the Power.”

“Sisters! For ourselves, in memory of their
pain, we invoke the Power.”

“Mater! We invoke the Power.”

“Sisters! On the evildoers, with justice for
a crime unrepented. We invoke the Power!”

“Mater! We invoke the Power.”

As the woman continued, the gathering chanted
their responses to her incantation, and the spectator looked on in
horror. Minutes passed. Higher and higher their voices climbed,
their bodies beginning to sway and jerk like branches bending to an
unseen wind.

Finally with a wild shriek, one knelt by the
pyre and lit the brush. With a crackling roar, the reeds ignited
and the blaze lit up the crypt in an orgy of shadows and light. The
circle broke down into a dancing, spinning frenzy of moans and
howls.

“Sisters,” Mater cried out above their voices
as their wild pace began to slow. “Generations pass, my sisters,
but once again, at the turning of the moon, we have fulfilled our
vow to remember.”

“We remember,” the throng answered.

“We remember,” Mater repeated, raising the
cup high over her head before pouring the crimson liquid into the
flames. Around her, the women fell to the stone floor, as if
senseless, and the only sound was the crackling hiss of the
fire.

Moments later, the women rose as one, and
Mater addressed them once more.

“Tonight, my sisters, I have tidings to
convey to you, for I have learned that a new laird is coming.”

A murmur swept through the gathering, and the
figure hidden in the niche edged forward as far as possible without
being discovered.

“As we have seen in the past, evil stamps the
souls of men.” Mater’s voice sank into a harsh whisper. “We all
remember the reason for our vow, the reason for our gathering. We
all remember, my sisters!”

The throng shifted excitedly.

“Once again, as we have since that night, we
must carry on our tradition.”

Mater raised her candle, and the onlooker saw
its flame reflected in the eyes of the followers. A chill swept
through the ghostly watcher.

“Let the curse fall where it may...we will
remember!”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Stirling, Scotland

 

 

“‘Tis a wish for death to go there, Gavin,
and you know it!”

Gavin Kerr pretended to ignore his friend’s
angry concern. Moving from one painting to the next, the
black-haired giant continued to study the splendid canvases
adorning the walls of Ambrose Macpherson’s study.

“At least a dozen deaths in the past half
year!” Ambrose growled. “Think man! The last laird and his family
died miserable deaths in that hideous pile of rock. By the saints,
Gavin, no laird of Ironcross Castle has died of old age for
centuries!"

“Ambrose, your wife has an astonishing
gift...”

“We are discussing your foolishness in going
to Ironcross just now,” Ambrose interrupted.

“Aye, but these faces touch me nearer to the
heart.” Gavin reached up as if to run his fingers over the swirling
colors of the canvas. In the portrait, a young child’s face glowed
as she looked lovingly at an infant in her arms. “Bonnie Jaime! She
has grown so much since I saw her last. And Michael, already a
strapping lad...”

Ambrose leaned on the table that separated
the two of them. “Gavin, we are not discussing Elizabeth and my
children. We are here to talk you out of accepting this curse of a
gift that the Earl of Angus has bestowed upon you. Can’t you see,
the Lord Chancellor is trying to be rid of you?”

“Nay, Angus would have no trouble thinking of
easier ways of disposing of me than by making me laird of a
Highland castle.” Gavin ran a hand over his chin before moving to
the next painting. “Though I should consider this reward more of a
dishonor, considering the natural dislike I have for all
Highlanders--with the exception of your family, of course,” he
added, grinning over his shoulder at Ambrose.

As the Highlander opened his mouth to speak,
the door of the study opened and Elizabeth Macpherson walked
quietly into the room. Like a full moon rising through the night
sky, the young woman’s entrance brightened the dark features of her
husband’s face.

“I see my prayer that you two might have
settled this dreadful affair by now was for naught,” she scolded
with a smile. With a slap to Gavin’s arm, Elizabeth moved around
the table and nestled comfortably against her husband’s side.

The news of his preferment had spread quickly
through the court, so Gavin was hardly surprised at Elizabeth’s
sudden entrance. His friends clearly intended to overpower him with
this show of force.

“To suit you, Gavin Kerr,” Elizabeth said,
“I’ve already had black cloths drawn across the windows at this end
of the house--to shut out all light--and had the children moved to
the west wing of the house--to eliminate any other signs of
life.”

“To suit me, Elizabeth?” Gavin repeated. “I
cannot stay.”

“But you
are
staying,” the young woman
said matter-of-factly. “I assume the only reason for you to abandon
your own lands and go to Ironcross Castle is that you are once
again seeking to withdraw from the world.”

“You mean, my love," Ambrose put in, "that
this pig-headed Lowlander is once again beset by those dark and
melancholy thoughts in which he retreats from all decent folk,
hating one and all...and himself!”

Elizabeth smiled. “Aye. So I thought to
myself, handsome as he is in his new kilt, there certainly can be
no need for him to travel so far into the wild and dangerous
northern Highlands. After all,
we
could provide him with the
same misery--I mean, the same hermit’s retreat--right here with
us!”

“You will not be swaying me from my decision
to go.” Gavin looked gently at the two before him. Elizabeth’s
swelling stomach spoke of the imminent arrival of their third
child. “You’ve enough to be thinking about, as ‘tis. And my men are
ready. A message has been sent to Ironcross Castle and to my
neighbor, the Earl of Athol. I am expected there a fortnight from
now, so whatever you two say will make no difference.” He paused
before continuing. "Besides, ‘tis not my wish to become a hermit,
nor any desire to die that compels me to go to that castle. But
there is something.”

Gavin hesitated, considering his next words,
knowing that the truth would hardly make them worry less. After the
devastating loss at Flodden Field, he had been left with no family,
and there was no one closer to him than the two people. And he also
knew that their concern for his well-being ran much deeper than his
own.

Gavin started again. “A noblewoman came to me
a fortnight ago. At the time I was still considering the Lord
Chancellor’s offer of Ironcross Castle. This woman who came to see
me was old and infirm. She said you would remember her, Elizabeth.
Lady MacInnes.” Gavin paused as her expression softened, and
Ambrose put a comforting arm around her. “Even before meeting her,
I knew that Ironcross Castle was a MacInnes holding, that it had
been in her family for years, but she told me that after the latest
tragedy, she said, Ironcross could crumble to dust.”

Elizabeth slowly eased herself into a nearby
chair. “Last summer she told me a horrible tale of losing a husband
and two sons in a number of strange accidents on castle lands.”

“Aye. All her men folk but one,” Ambrose
added grimly. “And she lost the third son in that fire, too, since
then. Along with his wife and daughter.”

Gavin nodded gravely in acknowledgment. “Aye.
She told me that her granddaughter had been very fond of you.”

“I shall always remember Joanna,” Elizabeth
whispered. “She was so full of life. A truly lovely young woman.
And strong. Ready for whatever life might bring. She was to wed
this spring--to the Earl of Huntly’s nephew, James Gordon. But all
that is finished now. A life’s dreams gone in an instant.”

“The reason for Lady MacInnes’s visit, my
friends, was not so much to retell those tragedies, but to ask a
favor of me.” Gavin Kerr turned and looked again at the paintings
hanging on the wall. “She said that her granddaughter came to you
to sit for a portrait last summer.” He turned and found Elizabeth’s
gaze upon him.

“Aye, that she did,” she answered. “And they
took the portrait to Ironcross, I understand.”

Gavin looked steadily at his two friends.
“The old woman wants the painting. She is too old, she says, to
make the journey to Ironcross Castle...even to visit their tomb.
She cares nothing for what’s left of the castle. She has no concern
for what I do with it. The only thing she asks is that if the
painting of her granddaughter escaped the flames, she’d like me to
have it conveyed to her.”

Ambrose looked at the Lowlander intently. “If
that’s the sole reason for you to go, then you can send a messenger
and a group of your men to see to the task. There is no reason for
you...”

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