Lured to the night (the brotherhood series book 4) (page 9)

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“I know.” Lachlan raised his chin in acknowledgement, but he also knew he was damn lucky to be given another chance at happiness. “Shall I go and find Mrs. McTavish?”

“Aye, lad. Tell her the right time is nigh. Tell her I’m done with waiting.”

After relaying the message to Mrs. McTavish and then changing into clean clothes, Lachlan decided to search Boyd’s office. He had no idea what he was looking for, but his instincts told him something was amiss.

The pile of papers strewn on top of the desk revealed nothing of interest. The battered oak desk was locked, and so he ran his hand along the underside of the top drawer hoping to find a key dangling from a hook. Nothing. He scanned the row of books lining the shelves in the tall case. Again, nothing captured his interest.

Opening the leather-bound ledger, he examined the household expenditure for the last four weeks. He flicked back one month, then two. One entry caught his attention. The extortionate sum of six pounds and two shillings had been paid to a Mr. Stanthorpe for services rendered. Upon further inspection, Lachlan noted that the charge was made against replacing the rotten eaves in the stable block.

It posed a problem on two counts. Firstly, the price of such a project would undoubtedly cost less than two pounds. Secondly, Lachlan had recently conducted his own tour of the estate and noted the poor condition of the woodwork in the stables.

There were other anomalies, too: other repairs charged to the estate, bills to labourers, excessive visits to the farrier. Together they totalled almost a hundred pounds, all spent in the last six months. If he searched other ledgers would he find similar entries?

Locating the accounts for the last three years, covering the length of time he had spent in Edinburgh, Lachlan carried the pile of books to his room. He hid them between two mattresses, replaced the sheets and coverlet, locked the door and tucked the key inside the concealed pocket of his coat.

He had one more call to make before he returned to Castle Craig.

The ride to Comrie took thirty minutes. After being granted access to the parish records, he scanned the relevant page. The date of Isla’s marriage to Nikolai was seared into his brain. There could be no mistake. Finding no record of the marriage, he spoke at length to the minister. Confident with the minster’s reply, Lachlan began the journey back to Castle Craig feeling optimistic. Indeed, anyone passing him on the road would have wondered why his grin stretched from ear to ear.

As he passed the lane leading down to the village, he stopped. Whilst the need to see Isla burned in his chest, he knew she would be resting. It occurred to him that Boyd really was an elusive fellow. He had no family, never spoke about himself. Their conversations often took place after more than one glass of whisky. Consequently, serious subjects gave way to jovial stories and village gossip.

Boyd would not be back from Crieff until supper, which would give Lachlan time to pry into the steward’s affairs. As the landlord of the alehouse, Hendry knew more than enough about the private business of his patrons and so Lachlan decided to ride to the village and ask a few probing questions.

Hendry’s main income came from renting rooms to travellers journeying down to the town. At night, the alehouse proved to be a warm, lively place where those who wanted to save on the cost of coal and candles could sit for hours sipping their ale slowly to make it last.

Lachlan tethered his horse and strode into Hendry’s house.

There were two people seated at a table, their faces unfamiliar. When Hendry glanced up from behind the oak counter, his eyes grew wide; his bottom lip quivered.

“I dinnae want any trouble, Lachlan,” he whispered. “I’ve already given ye an apology for what I said earlier.”

“I’ve come for a drink, Hendry, nothing more.” It was only a small lie.

Hendry raised his chin, filled a tankard from a barrel behind him and slid it across the

counter. “There’s no charge,” he said wiping his hands on the skirt of his apron.

“Nonsense.” Lachlan pushed the coin across the counter. “You’ve a living to make. You’ll not feed your children on charity.”

Hendry pocketed the coin without protest. He was silent for a moment, but eventually said, “There’s talk you plan on returning to Edinburgh.”

Lachlan studied the man over the rim of his tankard. “That had been my intention.” He placed the vessel on the wooden bar. “But Isla has just received news that her husband is dead, and so my plans have changed.”

He had no problem divulging the information. It would soon be common knowledge, and Hendry would appreciate a fresh piece of gossip.

“Yer father will be pleased about that.”

“He’s overjoyed. Besides, it means I can oversee the repairs to Carrick House, make sure he’ll be warm and dry come winter.” Lachlan took another sip of his ale. “Talking of the repairs, I’m told there's a man called Stanthorpe who replaced the eaves on the stable block. Do you know where I might find him?”

If the entry in the ledger proved fraudulent, then there was every possibility Boyd had used a false name.

“Stanthorpe?” Hendry shook his head. “Most men in the village do their own repairs, but John Dunn is the man to speak to for yer more skilled jobs.”

Lachlan knew Dunn. He was of his father’s generation and well respected in these parts.

“The only fellow I know by the name Stanthorpe lives out near Comrie.” Hendry shuffled closer to the oak counter and bent his head. “I hear he’s fond of whisky. Makes his own in some secret location.”

Boyd boasted that his whisky was distilled locally. But surely the steward wouldn’t pay six pounds for the pleasure.

“I’ll speak to John Dunn,” Lachlan said taking another gulp of ale. “See if he can get a few men together to make a start on the repairs.”

Hendry nodded. “Aye. But you might want to go to Crieff to hire men if yer planning to get any work done before winter.”

“Boyd rode to Crieff this morning. Perhaps he’ll have news when he returns.”

Hendry frowned. “Boyd? Yer must be mistaken. I saw him in the village not long ago.”

Lachlan straightened. “When was this?”

“On my return from Castle Craig. I told him about Miss Maclean’s illness. I told him that whoever had been telling him the tales about her thirst for blood must have been in their cups.”

So Boyd had been spreading the stories about the legendary sith. Lachlan shivered as a sudden feeling of foreboding ran through him. “Do you know where he is now?”

“He wasn’t in a mind to talk. He cursed and mumbled to himself and headed off on the road towards Castle Craig.”

 

 

Chapter 15

 

 

 

Isla pressed her nose to the window in her bedchamber and stared out across the lush green fields. During the last hour, her vision had grown gradually clearer. Now, other than a slight haze and the need to blink a little more often, her sight was fully restored.

Everything appeared much brighter than she remembered. The sun’s rays created a vibrant yellow hue where it streaked across the grass. It made a change from staring out at a sombre night sky. Today, the brilliant blue dazzled her. Of course, having spent years hiding in the shadows, even a slight hint of colour would radiate exuberance.

Never in her wildest imagination could she have predicted an end to her blood affliction. A laugh burst from her lips: a childish giggle she could not repress. She clapped her hands together rapidly as a way of controlling the excitement rushing through her veins.

“I understand how you feel,” Ivana said from the opposite side of the room. “It’s almost impossible not to jump about, sing, dance and behave in a ridiculous way.”

Isla turned to face the woman who had travelled hundreds of miles to free her from her nightmares. A profound feeling of affection filled her chest. She rushed over to Ivana and pulled the lady into an embrace.

“I cannot thank you enough,” Isla said, the sudden emotion almost choking her. “You have given me back my life, and I will be eternally grateful.”

They stepped apart. Ivana clutched Isla’s upper arms and rubbed them affectionately. “I feel as though we share a connection that goes beyond our experiences with Nikolai.” Ivana shrugged. “I cannot explain why, but I knew I had to come here.”

Isla smiled. “Well, I thank the Lord you did.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the inviting scene beyond her window. “I have spent far too much time indoors. Lachlan won’t be back for a few hours, but I cannot wait to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Now I can see where to place my feet I shall go for a walk. ”

“I remember those first hesitant steps in the sun. Such a magical moment should not be experienced alone.” Ivana gestured to the window. “I’ll walk with you. Leo has gone to lie down. He’s still recovering from his excessive consumption of whisky, and Douglas is no better.”

“We don’t have to go far.” Isla’s eagerness for company was evident in her tone. “It’s a glorious day for the time of year, probably the last we’ll see before spring.”

Ivana’s eyes widened. “We could examine the old stones around the ancient burial site. See if we can find one with a symbol that looks like our branding mark. Until coming here, I hated seeing it seared into my skin. But after learning that the same image is engraved on the bracelet in the burial chamber, I feel as though it is an emblem of kinship.”

“Perhaps we are distantly related,” Isla said, getting a little carried away with the romantic notion of it all. “Perhaps we are the ancestors of the lady in the tomb.”

They both chuckled. If felt good to laugh after years of misery.

Ivana stepped closer, threaded her arm through Isla’s. “Then let us go and search for the evidence.”

There were a few stones littered around the perimeter of the burial mound. They were all tall and thin, one side covered with an array of images and markings, the reverse almost always bearing the symbol of a cross.

When it came to analysing the pictures carved into the stone, Isla tried to express some level of enthusiasm. But being outdoors whilst the sun was still high proved to be far more diverting. She could not help but stare at the sky in wonder.

“There are numerous symbols, some which are similar,” Ivana said with an air of frustration, “but nothing that resembles our branding mark.”

“Perhaps we should look at the stones surrounding the entrance to the tomb,” Isla said in an attempt to show some interest. She glanced at the detailed scene: men with spears on horseback, a large bull-like creature with horns. “These carvings may be depictions of lore, heroic stories to be passed down through the generations. I imagine those around the burial mound would represent memorials, symbols of clans, lineage or tribal connections.”

Ivana agreed and followed Isla to the tomb. During their recent investigation, it had been too dark to notice the engravings. Weathering had worn away some of the images. Isla ran her hand over the cold, grey surface, her eyes widening as she stopped to trace a shallow indentation with the tip of her finger.

“Here.” She glanced at Ivana, who was busy examining another stone to her left. “The edges have worn away over time, but I’m certain this is the same as the mark we bear.”

She stepped aside so Ivana could inspect the symbol.

“You’re right. It is identical in every way.” Ivana cast a sidelong glance, excitement evident on her face. “We are related to the people buried here. Perhaps not by blood, but certainly by circumstance.”

Isla’s thoughts drifted to the small skeleton in the stone coffin: a woman killed because of her blood affliction. “Do you think Talliano’s need to find a cure stems from a promise made to his ancestors?”

Ivana shrugged. “There is nothing to say that Talliano was not hundreds of years old and knew the lady personally. She must have been important to him. He found her grave and brought her here instead. Perhaps they were persecuted for their affliction, and he managed to escape.” She sighed. “As we’ve already said, we will never know. But it is still incredibly fascinating.”

Isla glanced at the stone covering the entrance to the burial chamber. “The gentlemen did not do a very good job of resealing the tomb. With a little effort, we could squeeze through the gap.”

Ivana shook her head. “It will be far too dark down there, and we do not have a lantern.”

Isla suppressed her disappointment. For some reason, she felt drawn to the lady with the bracelet. Perhaps it derived from knowing they had walked a similar path. “We could stroll to the hunting cabin and take a lantern and tinderbox from there,” Isla said. She knew Ivana would be leaving soon and wanted to make every effort to repay the lady’s kindness.

“Is it far?”

Isla shook her head. “No, just a few minutes’ walk across the field.”

Ivana smiled. “I would like to take one last look inside the chamber.”

They strode through the meadow towards the cabin. Ivana waited while Isla searched inside and returned with the necessary items.

“I decided to light the candle here,” Isla said holding up the rusty lantern, “but I’ve brought the tinderbox, too, just in case.”

They trudged back to the burial site. Ivana spoke of her vivid dreams about the Highlands and the reason she chose to make the arduous journey.

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