The night of the full moon blankets the ancient castle in its warm glow and signals to Muira and her lover that the time has come for her to ascend to her fate. Obstacles to true happiness make themselves known in the form of the local priest and certain lairds under the rule of Tristan, and old threats lead to a harrowing experience for Muira. Among the danger and desire comes a new strength for Muira, one full of lust and desire for which she fears and aches. Muira is left to wonder if she has the will to wield such power, or if it will consume her very soul.
The following morn found the mood in the castle much changed. Davina and Eva stepped into the chambers robed in thick black dresses with tall, tight buttoned collars. They assisted me into my mourning clothes with one on either side, but Davina paused several times to pull at her collar.
“Stop pulling or you will tear it, and no one has time to mend your mistake,” Eva scolded her.
Davina scowled at her friend. “I cannot help if the collar is such a nuisance,” she snapped.
“The laird ordered us to wear these, and we must wear them with dignity,” Eva persisted.
“You may loosen your collar in my presence,” I offered Davina.
“Blessed by the Laird,” Davina replied as she popped open the top two buttons.
“My lady, that isn’t done,” Eva scolded me. “It shows a disrespect to the old laird that we not mourn him properly.”
“He didn’t care what we were doing so long as we didn’t get in his way,”
Davina countered. “Besides, there’s to be celebrations later to honor his life. Will you preach against those?”
“Father Clarke has,” Eva pointed out.
I furrowed my brow at the last remark. “What has Father Clarke said?”
“He’s spoken out against the celebration tonight after the funeral,” Davina told me. She glared across me and at her friend. “He and certain other people wish for us all to have our heads bowed in prayer until the morrow.”
Eva gasped and her hand flew to her mouth. “How can you be so disrespectful to the Father?”
“I am loyal to our laird, and he says to celebrate his own father with as much drink and food as I can eat,” Davina replied.
“Is there a great deal of arguing among the villagers?” I asked them.
“Only a loud few, Muira. Nothing to worry about,” Davina assured me.
Eva dropped her hands and balled them into fists at her hips as she scowled at her friend. “Father Clarke and the Laird MacNaughton are not a mere loud few.”
“They are if there is but two of them,” Davina argued.
I held up my hands and they silenced. “Please. I beg of you. I need you both to trust me and tell me the full truth of what transpires in the village. I. . .I feel very alone here in the castle, and very shut out from the rest of the world.”
Davina and Eva’s faces fell, and they glanced at each other.
“We didn’t mean to upset you, Muira,” Davina told me.
“Nor cause you any distress,” Eva added.
“And we trust you like you were our own sister,” Davina insisted. She sat down on the foot of the bed beside me and wrapped an arm around my waist. “You’re like our little sister.”
“Then what are the true feelings that run through the village? Do they disagree with the celebration?” I asked them.
Eva bit her lip. “They do not disagree, and I would say some look forward to the celebration-”
“A great deal do,” Davina spoke up.
“-but Father Clarke is well-respected, and his voice carries far over everyone. I am sure you recall the honor bestowed upon him,” Eva finished.
I sighed and gave a nod. “Aye, and to have have him openly disagree with my laird is distressing.”
Davina gave me a bit of a shake and a smile. “But actions speak louder than words, and I can’t tell you how grateful everyone is for the return of their taxes. Your husband has made a great many people happy.”
I blushed and looked at me lap. “He is not my husband yet.”
Eva sat on my other side and smiled at me. “But he will be, and I am sure you both will rule very wisely. Perhaps as wisely as the old laird.”
“More wisely than the old laird. He didn’t care for anyone in this long valley but for himself,” Davina argued.
I clasped their hands in mine and smiled at each of them. “Thank you both for your kind words.”
Davina laughed and dragged me to my feet. “Thank us when we’ve gotten you to breakfast. Leod commanded us to bring you down long before this.”
They finished my dressing and my friends followed me downstairs to the dining hall. Everyone else was already in attendance with bowls of cold gruel set before them. Father Clarke was also among those who ate at my laird’s table and he held the honor of the left-hand seat beside my laird.
My laird stood at my entrance and smiled at me. He walked over to me and clasped my hands as the others stood.
“Even in morning you look lovely,” he told me.
I blushed and bowed my head. “Thank you, my laird.”
“And you now complete our happy little group,” he added. He led me to the table and seated me on his right.
“Happy until the food was brought. . .” Angus spoke up.
His father glared at him. “It is food fit for mourning, now eat it,” he snapped.
Duncan raised a spoonful and let it plop back into the bowl. “I must admit, my laird, that your servants make a fine mourning gruel. Tasteless and bitter,” he commented.
Tristan took a bite of his gruel and shuddered. “I fear you are correct.”
“And another meal of this. . .” Angus muttered.
Laird MacNaughton glared at his sons. “Show the respect your deceased laird deserves,” he snapped at them.
I recalled what Tristan had told me of his mother’s death and wondered if this wasn’t more than such an evil man deserved. God might have even disapproved of our eating the mourning gruel.
“Does something ail you, my lady?” Lady MacLaren asked me.
I started from my horrible thoughts and managed a smile as I shook my head. “N-no, I was merely praying to God to attend to the former laird’s soul.”
Father Clarke closed his eyes and bowed his head. “He was indeed a man worthy of God’s attention,” he commented. The good father frowned and lifted his head to present us with a furrowed brow. “Is that pork I smell?”
“In preparation for after the funeral,” Tristan assured him.
Father Clarke frowned. “It is customary for three days of mourning before rich food passes the lips of the grieving.”
Tristan stood and smiled. “How unfortunate, then, that I have planned a celebration of my father’s life in the coronation hall, and have invited all my subjects to attend.”
Father Clarke’s lips pursed tightly and his eyes narrowed. “I have heard that such was to happen, my laird, but I never imagined it to be true. Your father-”
“Would wish that his final memory for his subjects be one of a joyous occasion,” Tristan insisted. He offered me his arm, and I stood and grasped it. “I will leave the further mourning to those who live in the past rather than the joyous future I have planned. In the meantime, we will mourn my father and see that he is laid to rest comfortably in my family’s tomb.”
“Where is your father’s body, my laird?” MacNaughton spoke up. “I heard that it had disappeared.”
Tristan chuckled. “No, it was merely prepared for his final peace by one of my servants. If you wish to view him he lies in state in the long chamber. I have invited all my subjects to view him before his burial.”
“A wise decision, my laird,” MacNaughton commented.
Tristan bowed his head. “I thank you. If you will excuse me I have much to finish preparing.” He turned to me and offered his hand. “If you would care to accompany me, my lady.”
“Always,” I assured him as I gladly abandoned the food. The texture was as cow grass and the taste was of muddy soil. Aili must have regretted making such miserable fair.
The others at the table stood and Father Clarke stumbled to his feet. They bowed their heads in respect as we turned away and walked into the entrance hall.
“Why was the decision to view your father wise?” I whispered to my laird. “Is that not dangerous for you?”
Tristan pursed his lips and nodded. “It is both dangerous and wise. None may say it is not my father, but there is the risk of someone finding the mark on his neck. We will have to hope the latter happens, and not the former.”
“And what shall we do until the burial?” I wondered.
He sighed. “A most unfortunate duty and one that is more than my father deserves. I must be seated in the long chamber and attend to those who visit him.”
“Would the chore be improved if I were to sit with you?” I offered.
He paused and turned to me with a smile. “Much improved, my goddess.”
Tristan led me into the long chamber. The windows were decked with long black curtains, and all mirrors were covered in the same thick dark cloth. The coffin of Laird Kynan Campbell sat in the center of the room on four tall, thick blocks of wood. The lid leaned against the wall opposite the entrance, and I saw a hint of cloth stick over the top edge of the coffin.
I clutched onto his arm as Tristan guided me over to the coffin. He stopped us before the open box, and I hesitantly leaned over. The old laird was as before, but there was an extra flourish of cloth around his neck.
“Leod did his work well,” Tristan commented. “I would hardly believe he was dead.”
“But it is very well for you that he is,” a voice spoke up.
I spun around to find Seumas standing in the open doorway. Tristan did not turn, but I noticed his eyes narrowed.
“Good morn, cousin,” Tristan greeted him.
“Good morn, cousin,” Seumas returned as he sauntered over to the foot of the coffin. He placed his hands on the edge of the coffin and leaned over to look at the face of the old laird. “He must have been a very ruthless father to have exiled his son for so many years.”
“We were not fond of one another,” Tristan agreed.
“But to banish his only heir was an unwise move, and your father was not known for unwise actions,” Seumas commented.
Tristan’s eyes flickered to Seumas and he pursed his lips. “One cannot always be wise,” he returned.
Seumas met his gaze with a smile. “While we remain on the subject, cousin, where did you go in your exile? I cannot find a tale nor story of anyone seeing you within a hundred miles.”
“My exile was very lonely,” Tristan replied. He turned to face his cousin and pulled me to his side. “But I wonder why you bring up such a sensitive subject.”
Seumas slipped his hands off the coffin and shrugged. “I only meant to satisfy my curiosity.”
“And that which belongs to Laird MacNaughton?” Tristan guessed.
Seumas folded his arms across his chest and chuckled. “Perhaps. He is very curious about you, and his dullard sons can find nothing else to talk about but tales of your youths.”
“I am glad to hear they have so many fond memories,” Tristan commented.
Seumas slipped to the opposite side of the coffin and up to the old laird’s head. He leaned forward and scrutinized the dead man’s features. “How very well done, though I find that the corners of the mouth show a hint of some strange expression.” His eyes flickered up to Tristan and his smile widened. “Fear, perhaps? Or maybe surprise?”
“Or perhaps it is the effects of death on the body,” Tristan put forth.
Seumas straightened and shrugged. “Perhaps you are right, cousin. I sometimes look for things which may not be there.” He bowed to the old laird and then to us. “God grant you all what you have earned, and bring my cousin’s soul to his rightful rest.”
Tristan stiffly bowed his head. “I thank you, cousin, for your prayer.”
“Now I will wish you a good day, and will see you after the viewing,” Seumas promised.
He slipped away from us, but not before revealing another of his sly smiles, the sight of which made me shudder. I feared for us, and for the secrets between us.