The SCOTTISH WITCH
The second book in the Chattan Series
An Excerpt . . .
Becoming a witch was no easy trick.
The ground was wet and spongy beneath Portia Maclean’s feet as she left the path and walked into the woods moving toward the Great Oak that was a local landmark. Clouds covered the sky, but the full moon peeped out every once in a while to guide her way. All was eerily quiet. A fog drifted across the ground and the trees took on sinister shapes.
Portia refused to let herself think nonsense although her pulse was racing madly. What she was doing was a gamble, but didn’t they say fortune favored the bold? And she truly had no other choice. She needed money.
She was almost to the end of Camber Hall’s property when she noticed a white object hovering on a tree stump. The objected moved, jumping into the brush.
Portia gave a start, her hand going to her throat, but a small “meow” told her how silly she was being.
“Owl, you gave me a terrible fright.”
The wee cat answered with another of her light, complacent “meows.”
Portia forged on. Owl followed at a distance, disappearing into the brush from time-to-time. In truth, she welcomed the cat’s presence. It was comforting.
After a half hour of hard walking, Portia reached the Great Oak. The tree was set off the path and stood by itself, tall and majestic.
However, tonight, as she entered the clearing surrounding it, she received a surprise. The clouds had opened around the moon, painting the area a silvery light and highlighting the toadstool ring around the tree.
“Toadstool rings are not evil,” Portia whispered to herself. Still, its presence brought out a superstitious uneasiness Portia did not know she had.
A toadstool ring was witchy.
Yes, they could be found all over, but not this time of year.
The chant in Fenella’s book came to Portia’s mind and she found herself repeatedly murmuring, “Queen of the Meadow, take this evil from this house,” as she approached the Oak.
The tree was barren of leaves and its trunk was so wide around that it would take the arms of two men to encircle it. Therefore the toadstool ring was enormous.
Portia stepped inside it and put her bag on the ground. She raised a hand to lower the hood of her cloak so she could put on her hat, when a deep male English voice behind her said, “Hello, Fenella.”
The English Chattan.
Portia froze. She dared not breathe, let alone move. She was not prepared. She still wore her spectacles but at least her cloak covered her head. And there was no time to make presentation of the dress she’d labored over all day.
“It’s not midnight,” she said, blurting the first words that came to her mind and then chastised herself because she hadn’t used any of the special voices she’d practiced.
“I wouldn’t be a good soldier if I did what was expected, would I?”
She pulled the hood of her cloak lower over her face to hide her spectacles and slowly turned.
He was a dark shadow against the forest. The shadow moved and changed into a tall, broad-shouldered man greatcoat and boots.
The time had come. She could not show fear or allow herself to feel it. She had come this far to play a part, and so she would.
Portia raised a gloved hand and, using the witch’s voice she had practiced that day, said, “And I wouldn’t be a good witch if I let you have your way. Begone with you. We have no more business between each other.”
Harry had not anticipated being dismissed.
None of the women presented to him as witches before had dismissed him. They all wanted the money or they had been sad and lonely.
Another difference–this witch was young. Very young. All the others had been crones. In spite of the long cloak, he could tell she had a slender figure and her arm moved with natural grace.
A small white cat who appeared not to have ears had sat on its haunches beside her as if offering protection. A most unusual cat. Then Harry realized it did have ears that had dropped forward. Almond eyes watched him as if daring him to take one more step.
The wind came up, rushing through the clearing and up and around them and Harry knew in that moment, in a way that defied logic and common sense, that he was supposed to be here. That he was meant to meet this woman.
Harry wasn’t given to flights of fancy. He was not even particularly superstitious–and yet there was a connection between himself and this woman so strong that it could have survived two hundred years.
She was the one. She was Fenella.
This was the woman he’d been searching for. He recognized her deep in his bones.
He’d even overheard her chanting as she approached the tree.
“Wait,” he said. “I–” He paused, and then removed his hat and fell to his knees in front of her. She held his brother’s life in her hands. “I beg a moment of your time.”
Her head turned slightly as if she didn’t quite believe him.
“Please,” he said, softening his voice. Please was a new word to Harry. He commanded and others obeyed. But then, since he’d started this quest, he’d had to make many changes as man.
“I have come so far and looked so hard for you,” He said. “Please, hear my plea.”
Her arm came down. She drew herself back towards the haven of the tree, as if uncertain, her face hidden in the shadow of her hood.
Accepting her actions as a sign that she would listen, he launched into his petition. “My brother’s life depends upon your good will,” Harry said, throwing all pride away. “He’s a remarkable man. A better man than myself. He has fallen in love, Fenella. You know what that means.”
She did not reply, but kept her head down and turned slightly away from him. He wished he could see her face. The cat at her feet didn’t blink but stared all the harder.
“Lyon and his wife are going to have a child. He has everything to live for, Fenella. Everything. He does so much good for the world. You have extracted your price for your daughter’s death. It has been almost two centuries. Let it be, Fenella. Let it be. Let your clan and mine be at peace. Neither you or I can bring Rose back.”
The witch stood silent as if she was part of the tree and nature around her. She’d lifted her head as he spoke and it seemed as if she didn’t have eyes. Instead, moonlight glinted from where her eyes should be. Again she lowered her head. Harry didn’t know if she was agreeing to his request or merely considering it.
He pushed forward, putting all his conviction, all his love for his brother in his words. “If you must claim one last life, let it be mine. I’m a worthless soul. I am burdened by my own senseless, selfish actions. I’ve cost many good men their lives through my rashness and vanity. I deserve to die. In fact, death would be a blessing. But my brother, Fenella, my brother merits a long and happy life. I admire him before all other men. Lift the curse. You have had your revenge. And if it is more blood you wish,” he whispered, spreading open his arms, “let it be mine.”
Portia did not know what to make of this startling declaration.
Did he truly believe that one person could claim the life of another with something as simple and silly as a curse?
Or that there were such creatures as witches?
Paganism was long dead in Scotland . . . or was it? He spoke with conviction, with belief.
And there was something unworldly about this moment. There was the moon, the drift of fog, the wind in the trees, and this warrior of a man on his knees in front of her.
Now that he was no longer scowling as he had been yesterday, she could see he was a handsome man, big boned and with strong features that spoke of a deep character. His hair was overlong, as if he had not had time to seek his barber. It curled around his ears.
Even in the moonlight, his eyes burned with his sincerity.
And she was afraid.
He reached into his great coat and pulled out a small leather drawstring bag which he tossed toward the toadstool ring. It landed heavily at her feet. Owl pounced on it immediately, believing it a toy. The cat batted at the purse strings, and then, placing a paw upon it, lay down upon it claiming it for her feline self.
“There are fifty silver pieces in that purse. I offer two hundred and fifty more if you will remove the curse,” he said. “If that price is not enough, name what you want and I will pay it. I am a wealthy man but my money means nothing to me if I must watch my brother die.”
Portia had meant to take advantage of an arrogant man. Instead, she found herself facing a contrite one. A wounded one. This man suffered. He was in pain.
The spell she had been practicing that afternoon rose to her lips, unbidden by conscious thought. “Power of All Beings Abound, Clear my path that I may walk, Clear my eye that I may see, Depart all that would stop me from being free.” Her voice didn’t even sound like her own.
“You will lift the curse?” he asked. Straight, masculine brows had come together. This man was nobody’s fool, and here she was playing him for one.
“I will think on it,” she whispered.
His jaw tightened. “I cannot accept that answer. I want more than ‘thought.’ I’m paying for it.”
Here was the man who had almost run her over.
Portia shook her head. “I shall think upon it,” she repeated matching the challenge in his voice with steel in her own.
He studied her a moment as if weighing his advantage and then bowed his head. “As you wish. We shall meet tomorrow night?”
The Chattan was taking charge again, but Portia discovered her knees were shaking. Holding her own against him in this encounter was taking its toll.
“Tomorrow, midnight and not before,” she answered. “Now go.” As if to second her command, Owl hissed at him.
He nodded, placed his hat on his head and rose to his feet. Portia dared not to take a breath until he had walked away.
Owl did not move. The cat was listening, and Portia trusted her. She did not move as well.
A few minutes later, she heard a horse moving through the forest. The Chattan must have tethered it a good distance away so she would not be alerted to his presence. The horse’s movements faded into the distance, and Portia could release the breath she had been holding.
She knelt to the ground, her legs almost unable to support her.
Owl rubbed her back against Portia’s hand and purred her pleasure.
Portia reached for the purse. It was heavy in her hand. She untied the drawstrings and poured the gleaming silver into her hand. This was a small fortune. It was one year of support from her Uncle Ned. They would be able to pay rent and back wages and hold on another year of their tenuous existence. It would be a good Christmas.
Portia didn’t linger but picked up her black bag and hurried home. She was very lucky that he had not seen her face, or at least, she prayed he hadn’t.
She took off the dress, stuffed it holly leaves and all in the bag with the hat and hid the lot under her bed.
After a restless night where she had dreams of knights in armor kneeling before her and wild horses running her over, Portia cooled her impatient heels until late morning to announce to her mother and Minnie that she had heard from Uncle Ned. Her letter and his money to them must have crossed paths in the post, she said, because here was what he had promised.
Minnie was still very quiet and sad and behaved as if money didn’t matter–but her mother was thrilled. “We need a new frock for Minnie if she is to attract notice at the Christmas Assembly.”
“I’m not going to the Assembly,” Minnie said.
“Oh, yes, you are,” Lady Maclean announced. “No daughter of mine will go into hiding for a mere country physician. You were destined for better things, my girl.”
“We have plenty of dresses,” Portia argued. “We don’t need new.”
“It’s not you I’m buying for,” her mother said. “It’s for your sister. We need her to marry well, or do you want to spend a lifetime of begging Ned for money?”
“I’m not going to marry,” Minnie announced. “I’m going to be just like Portia. Alone and content.”
Portia had opened her mouth to speak, but found words deserted her. Was she content? Certainly she was alone.
And why did Minnie’s assertion make her feel hollow inside?
“Minnie,” their mother said, “you mustn’t waste time licking your wounds. Mr. Tolliver ran too easily. It was a test, you see. Any man worth his salt would have fought for you. You want a man who is more stalwart. And, you want to look your very finest when Mr. Oliver Tolliver sees you again, which will probably be at the Christmas Assembly.”
The last argument won Minnie over.
Pride was a funny thing and Portia could see that their mother had struck just the right chord to raise Minnie’s.
Minnie’s chin lifted. “You are right. If I don’t go, then he will know how much he has hurt me.”
“That’s my girl. Portia, hitch up the pony cart. Minnie and I are going to Fort William.”
“Mother, please,” Portia said. “We don’t have money for this.”
“Nonsense,” Lady Maclean said, plucking the coin purse out of Portia’s hand . “We don’t have money to not do this. Consider it a sensible investment in our futures.”
“I won’t let her spend it all,” Minnie promised Portia. Now that she had a purpose in mind, that of showing Mr. Tolliver how foolish he was to let her go, color had returned to Minnie’s cheeks. “We just need lace and ribbon. It won’t cost much. I assure you it won’t.”
“At least let me keep twenty pounds for the back rent and the next quarter,” Portia said. She’d also be able to see to Glennis’s back wages.
“If you insist,” Lady Maclean answered, and counted out the coin, but she kept the rest. She and Minnie put their heads together and started sharing ideas for updating dresses they already had.
Portia stood there, listening to them carry on . . . and realized, they would soon spend what she had. And then she would need to find more. Always searching for more.
And she felt very guilty that she had deceived the Chattan only to have her family spend, spend, spend.
She was not surprised when they returned from Fort William with the information that buying lace and ribbon for old dresses had not been enough. A new dress had to be made for Minnie, and of course it had cost extra since the seamstress had such a short amount of time to create it.
And her sister had wanted it. In the space of hours Minnie had changed. She’d gone from the heart-broken sister to a woman who felt scorned. Certainly their mother had worked her magic.
Oh, yes, and Lady Maclean had purchased a few “necessities” for herself.
That night, Portia didn’t go to the Great Oak.
She’d never intended to. After all, she was not a witch. She could not give the Chattan the spell he wished. And she could not return his money. It was almost gone.
And so she lay awake, Owl curled into a contented ball at the foot of the bed, while she stared at her ceiling, praying fervently that the Englishman would forgive her for playing him false.
The problem was, with the image of the man on his knees in front of her burned into her memory, she doubted if she would ever be able to forgive herself.