Read Highland Raven Online

Authors: Melanie Karsak

Highland Raven

 

Clockpunk Press 2015, 2014

Copyright © 2015 as
Highland Raven

Copyright © 2014 as
Lady Macbeth: Daughter of Ravens

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. References to historical people, organizations, events, places, and establishments are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

Published by Clockpunk Press

PO Box 560367

Rockledge, FL 32956-0367

Clockpunk Press

Editing by Cat Carlson Amick

Proofreading by
Becky Stephens Editing

Proofreading by
Rare Bird Editing

Cover art by
Damonza

Dedication

 

for Mother

Prologue

 

I’ve been defamed. The Bard
of Avon dubbed me a villainess, an angry, evil murderess. I’m forever painted as an ambitious, blood-hungry queen. They’d have you take me for a mad woman. Slander. Small men tell lies. Poets tell half-truths. Maybe I’m a bit mad, but who wouldn’t be after all I have seen? Regardless, I don’t want you to believe such deceits. I don’t want my name to go down in the annals of times with such epitaphs. My name. What is my name? Have you ever heard it? Did your professor of English ever utter it? My name is quite the mystery. My father gave me one, my aunt favored me with another, and the Bard, well, he called me by my husband’s name: Lady Macbeth. But I am more than these simple monikers.

I was born in the year 1010 of an Irish princess and an heir to the throne of Scotland. My mother was the reward from a raid into Ireland and a false treaty thereafter. She’s forgotten now, but I want you to know her name. I owe her that. They called her Emer after the Irish legend of Cú Chulainn. She was tall, thin, and had blonde hair that stretched to the floor. My mother died a short nine months after marrying my father, whose name was Boite. My beginning brought her end. They believe she lived sixteen years. Not a long life. And me, I came into the world killing.

My ill-fated birth came at the end of another of my father’s campaigns. As the corpses were paraded past the castle to the burial mound, I emerged squalling from the womb. I was handed to my father who was covered in more blood than I; the sticky red liquid on his chainmail stained the white of my swaddles.

“See here, child,” my father whispered, lifting me to the open window casement. “These men are of your blood. I set the mark of the old gods upon you,” he said, tracing ancient runes upon my brow, my natal blood mixing with the blood of the dead men. “Avenge your kinsman. I call upon the Morrigu, the ancient and dead Goddess of these lands, and ask her to claim you. Let her rise up and take you. Let her whisper battle cries for lullabies. Avenge with the magic of the old gods. Rise up, child, and carry our banner forth. Remember that you are a child of Kenneth MacAlpin’s line and bring vengeance.”

Dark clouds moved across the sky, occluding the full moon. A raven’s shrill pierced the silence. The old gods had listened.

“Hear now, sweet babe, Gruoch, hear how the raven calls.”

Thus the first name fell upon me, Gruoch, an awful sounding name uttered from an angry and vengeful man. Behind my father, the midwives crossed themselves. Though he attended the mass of the White Christ, those close to my father knew his heart belonged to the old ones. And me, the farthest from him, felt his beliefs most of all. Perhaps, in this, he did me a single justice.

Chapter 1

 

“Toil and trouble,” my aunt
Madelaine grumbled playfully as she shook me awake. “Raising you has been nothing but toil and trouble. Wake up, Little Corbie.”

Little Corbie. All my life she had called me Little Corbie, her little raven, on account of my looks: raven-black hair and pale skin. My blueish, almost lavender-colored eyes, added to my midnight pallor. I yawned tiredly and rolled over, pulling my covers over my head. I was too sleepy to get into mischief, but Madelaine’s voice told me she was ripe with it.

“Lazy,” she scolded, shaking my shoulder. “Get up. We’re waiting for you.”

Through my sleep-clouded eyes, I peered out from my blankets past the waterfall of Madelaine’s curly red hair to see the silhouette of Tavis, my aunt’s brawny champion, in the doorway. Madelaine’s husband, Alister, was still away, and she wasn’t going to let even a moment of her temporary freedom pass unenjoyed.

“The night is still fighting the morning and so am I,” I complained sleepily, but my hazy head started to clear, and the first glimmer of nervous excitement filled my stomach. Madelaine’s waywardness almost always resulted in fun.

“The raven caws,” Tavis said from the door. “I’ll meet my ladies in the stable.” The door clapped shut behind him, and I heard the sound of his footsteps recede down the stone castle hallway. I looked out the window. The night’s sky was fading into hazy gray as the first hint of rosy pink illuminated the skyline.

Madelaine crossed the room quickly, her fast movement becoming a blur of swirling skirts as she gathered up my riding clothes and dumped them on the end of my bed. In the heap I saw my leather riding breeches, an emerald-colored tunic, and some pale green undergarments.

With a heavy sigh, I got out of bed. “And where are we going?” I asked as I pulled on my clothes.

“Out, out! To the forest. Amongst the trees. Somewhere where we can run wild,” Madelaine said with a laugh as she tossed me my riding cloak. “I can smell the sap running, can’t you? I swear I could smell daffodils on the wind this morning,” Madelaine said in a sing-song.

I couldn’t help but smile. Madelaine was my father Boite’s half-sister, and I adored her. “Can’t the forest come to us?” I asked with a laugh.

“Don’t worry. The morning air will perk you up,” she said with a grin. Once I was dressed, she grabbed my hand, and we headed downstairs. The castle was quiet. Only a few servants were stirring as we wound down the stairwell, passing through the great hall. A fire roared in the grand fireplace. It burned off the cool morning air.

Moving quickly and quietly, we headed toward the stables. The morning sky was lit up with rose, orange, and violet light. Thin strips of clouds streaked the horizon. As we crossed the yard, we stirred up the flock of chickens that had just risen for their morning meal.

Aggie, the servant girl, was just about to feed them.

“My Ladies,” Aggie said with a smile. A tender girl with reddish-blonde hair and face full of freckles, she was always trying to help me improve my embroidery. Despite her best efforts, I left every lesson with bloody fingertips.

“Aggie, sweet girl, tell your mother I’ll be back by supper!” Madelaine called, referring to Ally, the head of Madelaine’s domestics.

“Of course, My Lady,” Aggie said with a grin. She winked playfully at me.

I grinned, rolled my eyes knowingly, and waved goodbye to her.

Madelaine’s capricious ways were well-known by the servants, but they never betrayed her trust. After all, everyone knew how vicious Alister, Madelaine’s husband, truly was. Everyone loved and pitied her, me included. And when it came to her household, Madelaine was always first to defend and protect them, though there was little she could say in anyone’s defense when Alister found a reason to hate…or punish…or want. I shuddered. I’d learned the hard way that it was dangerous to be close to him. I swallowed hard and tried not to think about it. Alister was gone, for now, and Madelaine was right. You could smell spring in the air.

The yard was a muddy mess. It rained nonstop for three days. All of the grass outside the walls of the tall stone citadel had been worn down to the bare earth. While the rains had finally relented, my boots were caked with mud by the time we reached the stables. Tavis was waiting outside the barn with our horses already saddled.

“Lady Raven,” he said and smiled as he held out his hand, helping me onto my beloved black horse, Kelpie. The steed was the last gift my father had ever given me. Given his bewitching color—midnight-black without a speck of disruption save his dark-brown eyes—I named him for the shape-shifting horse spirits said to haunt the lochs.

“What mischief have you been up to, my water horse?” I whispered once I mounted, leaning over to hug his neck and whisper in his ear. I inhaled his sweet, hay-frosted scent. The horse flicked his ears backward to listen to me then nickered softly. I patted his neck.

Tavis helped Madelaine mount her chestnut-colored palfrey then swung up onto his own steed.

Madeline smiled at me, the first rays of morning light making her red hair glow like flames.  “Ready?” she asked, her green eyes twinkling.

I nodded.

With a click of the tongue, she spurred her horse away from the castle. Laughing, Tavis reined his horse in after her.

“Come on, Corbie,” Tavis called as we rode toward a forest trail. “And don’t fall asleep in the saddle.”

The air was cool and fresh. Once the sun had risen, it warmed my raven-black tresses. Despite my best effort to keep up with Madelaine’s energy, my head bobbed drowsily. She and Tavis meandered down the forest path, flirting shamelessly. Madelaine’s red hair shone bright as a cardinal amongst the trees, her gown, the color of brilliant blue forget-me-nots, hugged her perfect shape.

After half a morning’s ride, we came to a lush green valley between three high mountains where a small, still loch reflected the periwinkle-blue sky. Large white clouds were reflected on the smooth surface of the water.

“Let’s stop here,” Madelaine called when we neared a small clutch of apple trees. She smiled brightly. Such trips outside the castle were a rare treat. Only when Alister was away could Madelaine roam the countryside, always with Tavis at her side, enjoying her freedom. She was, after all, a wild thing. She moped like a caged bird in the castle, but the forest—and Tavis—brought her back to life. Since I was almost always part of her capricious plans, I enjoyed the change as much as she did, though I hated to wake up so early.

Tavis helped Madelaine and me dismount then spread out a blanket while Madelaine pulled a wine jug and goblets from her bag. I took off Kelpie’s bridle to let him wander where he pleased. He went to the loch and drank deeply from the fresh spring water.

Madelaine filled three goblets and handed one to each of us. “To this fine spring day,” she toasted.

“And to my ladies,” Tavis added, tapping his goblet against Madelaine’s and mine.

He drank his wine in large gulps, Madelaine refilling his glass when it was empty. She then corked the wine and lay back under the trees. A small wind shook the pink and white apple blossoms, showering her in petals. She giggled when the pearly wisps of silk landed on her face, but she didn’t open her eyes. Tavis laughed and gently blew the petals off. The sweet scent of the blossoms filled the air.

“It’s getting warm. I can smell the earth coming to life again,” Tavis said.

“Humm,” Madelaine commented as she stretched out, seeming to doze under the warm sun. She was settling in just as I was starting to finally feel awake. From the way Tavis was looking at Madelaine, I had an inkling they wouldn’t mind some privacy, so I decided to wander.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” I said, standing.

“Leaving already?” Madelaine asked teasingly. Her eyes still closed, she didn’t see me roll my eyes at her.

Tavis rose and went to his horse, returning with a sword. “My spare,” he said as he belted the scabbard around my waist. His hands were deft, and as he leaned in close to me, I smelled the heavy scent of lavender oil on him. I breathed in deeply. My heart beat a little faster. “Yell if trouble finds you.”

“No trouble will find her,” Madelaine commented sleepily.

I raised an eyebrow at her but said nothing.

 

* * *

 

I stepped lightly around the lake. Salamanders and fish swam in the clear water amongst the high cattails. A soft breeze chased the winter chill away, filling the air with the smell of damp earth. Above me, a raven shrilled and flew into the valley. I followed it.

The raven flew from tree to tree into a very old forest. Here the trees were massive, the old oaks reaching far overhead. The bird hopped from one branch to another, leading me around a bog where bright-colored dragonflies zipped from place to place. It cawed at me then led me deeper into the woods. All the hair on the back of my neck had risen. Ravens were the emblem of my family. Surely the bird was a harbinger. I followed the inky bird to a stream where it roosted in a tall willow at the water’s edge. Cawing down once more at me, it then took off quickly, disappearing into the sky. My nerves were set on edge. I looked all around, expecting…something. But there was nothing. I sighed. I was in the middle of the forest near a fallen tree at the edge of a stream with only the eyes of the woods on me. I had followed the raven where? To the middle of nowhere. It was peaceful and far from the confines of castle life, but something told me Madelaine was having a much more exciting time than me.

Sighing again, I spotted a small clutch of snowdrops grew near a fallen tree. I picked a handful, relaxed into a niche amongst the branches, and started weaving a crown. I breathed in deeply. I loved the loamy smell of the earth and the sound of the babbling brook.

Intent on my task, I hardly noticed the passage of time. An hour must have passed when I was suddenly struck with a strange feeling. I felt someone near me. I looked up to find a woman standing on the other side of the creek, just twelve feet away, watching me. Fear washed over me; I bit my lip.

My hands trembling, I set the flower wreath on my lap and studied her. Was she friend or foe? Over one shoulder she had slung a game bag. An herb pouch hung from her belt, and she held a bow in her hand. She had long brown hair pulled into a braid. She wore the leather jerkin of a man and pants to match. On her hands she wore rough leather gloves, and the hilt of a dagger stuck out from the top of her boot.

“You are Gruoch,” she said calmly, her voice deep and raspy.

I didn’t reply.

“Gruoch, tell Madelaine the Goddess calls. Tell her to bring you at the full moon.”

My heart thundered in my chest. Gruoch. No one called me by that name except my father. When he had visited in my twelfth year, he and Madelaine talked in hushed tones deep into the night. Curious, I spied on them through a crack in the door.

“The Goddess will call her when the time is right. We will have to give her up then,” my father had said in his deep, gruff voice. I could just see him through a gap in the closed feasting hall door. A tall fire roared, casting orange light on them as they sat at the slat-wood table. His long black hair was pulled away from his face by two braids which were tied at the back with a silver raven knot pendant. His hair shimmered blue in the firelight. My father was a hulking creature, but as he leaned in toward Madelaine, who looked as thin as a goldenrod beside him, his rugged features were gentle. He tenderly took her hand.

“It will be hard to let her go,” Madelaine replied, and I saw her wipe a tear from her cheek.

My father kissed her on the forehead. “I am so grateful that you’ve loved her like she was your own. I could not…”

Madelaine shook her head and entwined her fingers in his, comforting him. “It was not in your hand.”

“But I love her so,” he whispered. “As much as I can. I hope she knows.”

“Even if she doesn’t understand now, one day she will. After all, we have the same blood in our veins. Our line must serve.”

“Yes…we all answer our call,” he said, touching an all-too-apparent bruise on Madelaine’s cheek. Such bruises were the ongoing handiwork of her husband, Alister. “No matter your will. No matter the price.”

Moving his hand away from his bruise, she replied, “We all endure. But where you can, use better sense than your father.”

Madelaine and my father were half-siblings; they shared the same mother. When Madelaine’s father had died, her mother had been wed to Kenneth, my grandfather. Their marriage produced two noble sons, Boite (my father), and King Malcolm (Boite’s elder brother), and so by marriage Madelaine became their sister and at the mercy of Kenneth’s decisions. It was he who had wed her to Alister in political alliance.

“Wed her to a kind man or don’t wed her at all,” Madelaine pleaded to Boite.

“May the Goddess let it be so,” my father whispered.

“May the Goddess let it be so,” Madelaine chimed solemnly.

That winter, in an effort to pacify strained relations with the English, King Malcolm sent my father and a small army to Wales to help English King Cnut settle an uprising. Heavily outnumbered, with reinforcements far behind, my father died. I once heard Alister say that Malcolm had sent my father to his death, eliminating my father’s threat to his throne. Maybe he was right. But at the time, the line of succession didn’t matter much to me. I mourned the death of my father.

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