Muira’s precarious situation in the arms over her amorous lover grows tense when the old laird reveals his intention to wed and beget more heirs. Her lover begs her to help him, or both their lives will be at risk should the old laird find out about their nightly trysts. She promises to do as bidden, and her promise leads her to the far reaches of the village where the moor overtakes the fields. There she will confront an old woman who holds the only hope Muira has to saving her love, and herself.
I awoke as though in a dream. I imagined I lay in my father’s strong arms, and he carried me through a dark forest like those that stood at the far end of the farthest hay fields.
“A lady shouldn’t need to walk,” he teased me.
“But I am not a lady. . .” I murmured.
He smiled down at me and his face changed. No longer was he my father, but the young Laird Campbell. The world around us, too, changed. The forest melted away and was changed to the dark halls of Castle Campbell.
“You will be,” he promised me.
My eyes widened, and the dream vanished. I lifted my head and looked around me in bewilderment. Gone was the laird’s strong arms, and in their place was the cold, hard floor of the passage outside my room. I lay atop the rough dirt and cool stones beside the open door. Mary still was asleep on her bed of straw.
I looked to the kitchen. The light from the old man’s candle was gone.
There was only darkness and the quiet of the early morning. Someone stirred in their room, and a sudden fear struck my heart at the chance of being found outside my room.
I crawled on my hands and knees into my room and lay still atop my bed. I peeked through my lidded eyes and glimpsed Aili pass by with candle in hand. She paused at our door and frowned as she studied the opening. Aili quietly pushed the door shut, and the candlelight beneath the door disappeared down the hall.
In a few moments I heard the sound of the fire damper open and a curse from Aili.
“Blasted cold mornings. . .” she muttered.
Her footsteps returned to the passage, and in a moment there came a ringing of metal upon metal. “Come along, you soft women! Time to get up!”
The other women shuffled from heir small rooms and I behind them. They rubbed their tired eyes and glared at Aili.
“Can we not wait for the sun?” one of our number mumbled.
“Not when there’s guests to be taken care of!” Aili snapped. She caught my eyes and jerked her head over her shoulder. “You’ll be wanted in the hall with the other chamber maids.”
I bowed my head and hurried past her through the door. The dining hall was dark and quiet, much like it had been in my strange night vision, or had it been real? I had some proof for the latter, but the impossibility was to the former.
My thoughts still wondered about the previous night when I reached the grand hall. Bean Lyel stood at the bottom of the staircase with two other young women of my age beside her. There were brooms and empty buckets beside them. Bean Lyel turned to me and frowned.
“What kept you?” she snapped.
I bowed my head and curtsied. “Forgive me. I did not know the hour to come.”
“Five-thirty sharp, and I expect no excuses that you know not the time for the dark hours,” she told me.
“Aye, Bean Lyel,” I replied.
“Good. Now you’re all to clean the hall this day until I call you to clean the chambers, and whatever you’re to do, don’t make enough noise to disturb the guests,” she ordered us.
“Aye, Bean Lyel,” we answered.
“Now off with you, and no dawdling,” she finished.
She walked up the stairs and we all took a broom in our hands. I followed the lead of the others as they swept the corners and main pathway, and soon a pile of dirt grew between us. One of the women, a lass of eighteen winters, swept up next to me and smiled. She had long brown hair tied behind her and her clothes were as weather-worn as mine.
“What is your name?” she whispered.
“Muira,” I replied.
“I’m Davina,” she told me. Her eyes wandered over my form. “I haven’t seen you before around the castle. Are you new to the area?”
I shook my head. “No. I live at the edge of the village.”
She laughed. “Near the moors? That does explain your name.”
“My mother loves the moors, and my father wished to please her,” I explained.
“Oh, don’t mistake my meaning. Muira is a very pretty name,” she insisted. “But how did a moor-child get a spot in the castle of the Nightmare King?”
“Hush, Davina,” the other woman hissed.
“Nightmare King?” I repeated.
“You agree with me well enough in our room, Eva,” Davina snapped at her friend.
“But not out here,” Eva pointed out.
“Who is the Nightmare King?” I persisted.
Davina frowned and jerked her head towards the stairs. “Laird Campbell and his evil doings. I don’t know if the rumors reach outside the castle, but we know well enough his agreements with sorcerers and witches.”
“I have heard nothing of this in the village,” I told her.
She scoffed. “Then it’s his gold that keeps the ones who know silent, for I know he deals with them. I’ve seen them myself coming and going in the middle of the night.”
Eva stopped her sweeping and gripped her broom tight. Her eyes flitted around the room and she cringed. “Davina. . .” she whispered.
“Oh hush, Eva. There’s no one here to hear-” We all three of us jumped when a door shut above us.
Soft, slow footsteps walked the north wing passage.
“To work!” Davina hissed.
We resumed our chore, but my curiosity forced me to pause as the footsteps sounded above us. I tilted my head up and my mouth opened as I beheld the same twisted form of a man from the previous night. Even in the weak morning light there was no mistaking the hunched form of Leod. He shuffled along the balcony and stopped where the passages met. Bean Lyel walked out of the west wing passage and let out a startled gasp. She clutched her chest and glared at the man.
“What is it, husband?” she snapped at him. I started at this revelation. Bean Lyel was wife to this misshapen man.
“The master wants news. . .” I heard him mumble.
Bean Lyel’s narrow eyes swept down to the stairs to us. I averted my eyes and resumed my sweeping.
“Come with me,” Bean Lyel hissed.
Their footsteps retreated down the west wing passage, and in a moment Davina stopped her sweeping and nodded up at the balcony.
“You see what I mean now? Such strange servants he keeps, and what he keeps in the north wing I can’t fathom,” she commented.
“Perhaps the young laird,” I suggested.
Davina furrowed her brow. “His son? He’s been dead for-” Her eyes widened and her mouth was agape. “By all the saints, what if he seeks to return his son from the dead?”
“Now you speak nothing but nonsense, and only mean to scare us,” Eva argued.
“Does anyone know where the young laird is buried?” I asked the pair.
“Much of the family is in the vault in the castle garden, but I have heard rumors of a crypt inside the castle buried deep in the pits of the earth,” Davina told me.
“Davina!” Eva scolded her.
“What’s this?” Bean Lyel’s voice snapped above us. She strode down the stairs and glared at us each in turn. “Have you nothing better to do then quibble like children? Is the sweeping done.”
“Nearly so, Bean Lyel,” Davina assured her.
“Then finish and follow me. Our laird has ordered his guests arise early to join him in morning services, and the beds must be turned out and the rooms cleaned before they return,” she ordered us.
We finished our sweeping and hurried upstairs behind Bean Lyel. She led us down the west wing passage and to the rooms that had been opened the day before. They were closed now, but the one that faced north opened and Lady Annabel stepped into the hall. She wore a dress of shimmering emerald green and her hair was combed to a shine. Behind her was a servant girl of fourteen who’s head was perpetually bowed.
Lady Annabel sneered at us and looked to Bean Lyel. “Bean Lyel, I expect my chamber maids to not be seen.”
Bean Lyel pursed her lips, but bowed her head. “Forgive us, your ladyship. It shall not happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t,” the lady affirmed.
She pushed past us with her woman a few feet behind her. Bean Lyel snapped her hardened eyes to us.
“Let that be a warning to you all. If you wish to retain your positions you must keep yourselves out of view of her ladyship,” she warned us.
“Aye, Bean Lyel,” we answered.
“Now let us begin. Davina and Muira, to her ladyship’s room, and Evanna and I to his lairdship’s room,” she ordered us.
We separated into the two groups, and Davina and I slipped into the Lady Annabel’s room. The place was as a pigsty with wonderful clothes strewn about the room and the floor a mess with water, sheets, and soot from an ill-tended fire in the hearth.
Davina studied the room and frowned. “It seems she is lady only in birth and not in habits.” She picked up an elegant dress of fine make and shook her head. “I can’t fathom why Bean Lyel would be worried they would return soon from morning mass. Lady Annabel has much to confess to the priest.”
“But we have much to clean,” I countered.
She dropped the dress and sighed. “Aye, and we’d best be to it.”