First Chapter of Highland Deception

Chapter 1

Mackay Holding Strathnaver Province 1725

Full dark, as it is in those last hours before dawn, and the mist swirled around the manor gates. No guard patrolled, no torches blazed a path of light in the darkness. No sound obliterated the quiet, save for the wind whispering through the trees, carrying the scent of wet grass, recently turned earth, and smoke from a peat fire. A light burned in one of the upper rooms, a pale flicker that turned dark an instant later. If not for the light, the estate may as well have been abandoned.

Kenneth Mackay, wanted man and banished son, had returned. Fitting that his return to his ancestral home was cloaked in darkness.

A short time later, a lone figure carrying a torch approached the gate. The man nodded, just once. “I am Angus Grant, your brother’s man-at-arms. Mackay is expecting you.” The disdain in his voice was poorly disguised. “You’ll have to tend to your horse yourself. Can’t risk having the stable lads see you. I’ll explain it all away come morn, if you’re still here.”

Kenneth dismounted and clapped Grant on the shoulder. It was hard as steel, and told him more about the man than his words. Grant was no mere man-at-arms.

Grant shrugged him off, and that told him even more. “Is it as bad as that?” Kenneth asked.

Grant turned away, his shoulders stiff. “Worse. Should the MacDougalls or the Sutherlands find out you’re here, ‘twill be war. Should they discover your brother’s an invalid, with half our troops away, ‘twill be war. That’s the only reason I would even let you pass through those gates.” He stared off into the distance, as if studying the dark hills beyond the manor’s walls. Even in the dim light, the working of his jaw was evident beneath his flaming beard. “Meet me at the back by the kitchens. I trust you ken the way.” He stalked away.

Kenneth watched him go, glancing in the direction of those hills, where he would be if circumstances were different. If the choice were his to make, he wouldn’t be here, behind the walls he’d been driven from so many years before.

He shook those thoughts away. The last thing he needed, on tonight of all nights, was to be reminded of those times. They were over, done, and he wouldn’t change the past even if he could. Yet he couldn’t deny that he’d missed this place. The feel of familiar stone beneath his feet, the manor rising above him, imposing and dark, the scent of peat smoke and sea spray clinging to the air. Every rock held a memory and breathed a history of clan and family and legacy he’d attempted to deny but hadn’t been able to forget, no matter how hard he’d tried.

After attending to the needs of his horse, he walked the familiar path from the stables to the manor proper, with the thirty-one stone steps embedded into the soil. He smiled at the memories the estate brought, of a time before he’d been fostered and separated from his brother. They were happy ones and time hadn’t faded them, unlike the way time had faded the scar he’d gotten on his chin from tripping on that cracked top step.

He rubbed the notch on his freshly shaved chin.

The door stood open, and Grant lingered just inside the alcove, his face barely illuminated by a beeswax candle.

“Your brother’s in the turret room. Up the stairs.” He shoved the candle in Kenneth’s direction.

“Keep the candle, I can find my way in the dark. Are you not coming?”

“Nay. I’ve other duties to attend to.” Grant turned away, giving Kenneth a good look at the enormous broadsword strapped to his back before the light dwindled to little more a pinprick in the darkness.

He would wager his last shilling the man was the son of the laird himself, if the flaming hair was any indication. A good clan to have at one’s back, but dangerous enemies. Kenneth had never been entirely certain where Clan Mackay stood with the Grants in general, though it was clear where this Mackay stood with this particular Grant.

Kenneth placed his hand on the wall as he climbed the stairs. The darkness surrounded him, but as a lad he’d memorized every subtle nuance of these steps, these winding stairs leading up to his father’s great round room. Many a night, he had sneaked up the steps to listen to his father as he spoke with his advisors. Over time, countless feet had worn the stairs uneven, and, even now, his body remembered where the low spots were.

He’d been little more than a bairn himself when he’d last lived under this roof. When he’d returned, he figured he would do his time in the military and then would live on Mackay land near his brother’s estate, but that plan had been short-lived. He’d only been back for a few months when the incident that had left him without a clan and a home occurred.

Ten years had passed since he’d spoken with his brother. A long time to be separated from someone whose heart he’d thought he knew better than his own.

His twin.

Kenneth opened the door to the chamber. After the cool stillness outside, the heat of the room
blasted him like a furnace, oppressive and overwhelming.

The stench of the sickroom, of putrid flesh and unwashed bodies and vomit, rolled over him and turned over in his gut. He closed the door and steeled himself for what was to come.

Despite having been summoned after so long away, Kenneth hadn’t thought things would be this bad. He’d figured he would face a brother weakened by illness, but not this. Not overwhelming heat and the smell of death.

Malcolm lay in a massive, curtained bed, and in the light cast by the fire, his face was waxy and shiny with perspiration. His dark eyes darted around the room, but skipped over Kenneth as if he wasn’t even there.

“Grant?” Malcolm’s voice carried a frantic edge.

“Brother,” Kenneth managed to choke out.

Everything hurt. He hurt so much his limbs went numb,  his muscles locking down, his lungs refusing to take in the fetid air within these walls. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his skin became clammy, despite the heat of the room.

Kenneth had witnessed death before, having held his friends in his arms as they passed into Elysium. On the field of battle, he’d been the bringer of death, and had watched as the light departed his enemy’s eyes from the thrust of his sword.

He and Death were well acquainted. He’d just never seen it on a face so like his own, though to look at them now, one wouldn’t know they were twins.

Malcolm’s strong, proud body failed him, had withered until he was little more than a hollow shell. Not so long ago, Malcolm had been the larger of the two of them, slightly taller and more muscular. He’d been taut muscle and sinew, perhaps a little prone to fat, whereas Kenneth had been leaner, even when he’d had enough to fill his belly. And in those times since he’d been banished, he’d grown leaner still, until he’d become little more than muscle and bone, all angles and planes chiseled by the harsh realities of a Highland life.

Now Malcolm’s cheeks were sunken, and his blue eyes, a shade lighter, a shade bluer than Kenneth’s own violet ones, protruded from his too-thin face. His dark hair had been shorn, which emphasized the hollow cheekbones and the shadows beneath his eyes. His lips pulled back from his teeth into almost a rictus, his face a mask of Death.

He and Malcolm had shared a womb once, and Lord knew Kenneth had gone to Hell for his brother, but he couldn’t fix this. He couldn’t make his brother whole or give him the last breath of his body.

If he could, he would trade places with Malcolm. Better to know the comforts of heaven than to live without his twin. The years, the distance and the betrayal mattered so little, when it came down to this. It had been enough that Malcolm was alive somewhere in the world, to feel him in his soul.

Death lurked in the shadows of this room, come to steal his brother’s light, and Kenneth couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

“Kenneth,” Malcolm whispered. He waved his hand weakly, beckoning him to come toward him. “You came.”

Kenneth knelt, not forgetting that the hand he grasped was of the Laird of Clan Mackay. Not the father he’d once adored, but the brother he’d once loved more than he’d loved himself. “Of course, brother. The moment I received your summons.”

This was not precisely the truth. Kenneth had questioned his brother’s motives from the very start, but he’d come anyway.

Somewhere in the back of his heart, he must have known what he would find here. Maybe that was why he’d dallied. Maybe that was why he’d come in the end, despite all his reservations. “My first loyalty has always been with you and the clan.”

Malcolm’s snort deteriorated into a hacking cough that rattled in his throat. He covered his mouth with a cloth, and when his hand dropped limply to his side, the kerchief came away bloody. He scowled and waved the bloodied linen in Kenneth’s direction. “Bah. Your first loyalty has always been to making trouble and tooping pretty lasses. I should know.”

The last time Kenneth had been with his brother, he and Malcolm had been well into their cups and pursuing pretty barmaids in Inverness. Malcolm’s long, dark hair had been tied back with a leather thong, his body whole and strong. If Kenneth had known then what he knew now, he would never have left his brother’s side.

“‘Tis not my fault the lasses verily throw themselves at me.” Kenneth meant to sound cocky, but his words somehow fell flat. “And as I recall, trouble and tooping were something of a sport for you.”

“Pettiness is beneath you, Kenn.”

“I’m not being petty. Honest, mayhap, but not petty.”

Malcolm coughed in response.

Kenneth stood, poured his brother some water from a nearby pitcher, and offered him the mug.

Malcolm struggled to sit up, writhing among the blankets and pillows for what seemed like an eternity. When Kenneth extended his hand to his brother, he waved him off.

“I need neither your help nor your pity,” he said, his voice little more than an angry growl.

Perspiration ran in rivulets down Malcolm’s face, dampening his dark hair and plastering it to his forehead as he wrestled with the blankets and the weakness of his body. Despite the warm glow cast by the fire blazing in the hearth, Malcolm’s face took on a grayish hue. A paroxysm overtook him, and he lost what little ground he’d gained when he collapsed against the pillows.

Kenneth watched, his heart twisting in his chest. Without a word, he put his hands beneath his brother’s body and assisted him to a sitting position. Carefully arranging the pillows behind his brother’s back, Kenneth tried to ignore how he’d been able to feel the bones in his brother’s back, how, beneath his linen nightshirt, his brother’s heart beat as fast as a sparrow’s. How his brother’s body felt so bony and frail beneath his hands.

He handed Malcolm the water.

Malcolm’s eyes narrowed, but he accepted the cup. He took a sip and rested against the pillows. “Thank you.”

Kenneth nodded, just once, more of an acknowledgment than an agreement of any sort. “How long has it been this bad, brother?”

“How long have I been abed, you mean?”

Kenneth nodded.

Malcolm shrugged. “Six weeks. I injured myself hunting.”

“Where?”

“Leg.” Malcolm made a vague gesture encompassing the lower half of the bed.

Kenneth threw back the blankets.

“No!” Malcolm shouted, or would have shouted had he been able. Instead, his voice came out as naught more than a forceful scraping sound. He jerked his legs away.

Grunting as one of Malcolm’s feet connected with his chest, Kenneth grasped his brother’s legs, forcing them still. He was surprised by the lack of real effort he needed to exert to subdue his brother, who, of the two of them, had always been the stronger one, always the better fighter.

That disheartening fact told him everything he needed to know. Still, he wanted to see the final, fatal injury with his own eyes. He pushed up Malcolm’s nightshirt to expose the bandages covering his wound. “Let me.”

“No.”

“Malcolm—”

“I’m Laird of the Clan Mackay. You do as I say, not the other way around.”

“You are the laird, but I am your brother. You’ll either let me do this or I’ll rip the bandages off. Doona fight me.”

With a sigh, Malcolm collapsed against the bedding. “After everything I’ve done to you, why do you care?”

Kenneth couldn’t bring himself to meet Malcolm’s gaze as he carefully unwound bandages yellowed with pus. The stench turned his stomach and made his eyes water. He swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. “Your dressing is befouled. You’ll need it changed.”

Malcolm closed his eyes wearily and made a dismissive gesture with his hands. Despite the low light and the dark beard that ran from Malcolm’s neck to his cheeks, Kenneth saw Malcolm’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed hard. “You never answered me. Why do you care?”

Kenneth remained silent for fear his voice would betray him. He turned from his brother and tossed the foul bandages in the fire, simply to escape what he’d seen, if only for a moment.

The wound had festered, the skin around the wound hot, raised, and dark. Pus oozed from the gaping hole in his brother’s leg, and pale red lines extended out in all directions from the wound itself. Malcolm’s leg also bore evidence of leeches and bloodletting.

Fat lot of good that had done him. His blood was poisoned.

“Kenneth,” Malcolm prompted.

“Where’s the healer keeping the bandages?”

“The chest at the foot of the bed,” Malcolm answered.

“Now tell me why it matters at all to you if I live. Tell me why you came back.”

Kenneth opened the trunk and withdrew the bandages. He couldn’t quite bring himself to meet his brother’s eyes. Instead, he cleaned the wound as best he could and began wrapping the injured area with clean linen. Around and around, losing himself in the simplicity of the task. He focused on the motion of his hands to avoid focusing on his brother’s injury.

“Because,” he answered. Another swath of linen went around his brother’s thigh. “You sent for me. I’m a Mackay. I answer. How did you find me, anyway?”

“Doesna matter.” Malcolm shook his head. “But you’re not back just because I sent for you.”

“No?” Kenneth struggled to keep his tone even. He covered his brother in blankets and went over to the fire. Picking up a poker, he stabbed at the logs until they crackled and hissed. An ember floated out of the hearth and descended to the stone floor by Malcolm’s bed, where it darkened and went out.

“No,” Malcolm said. He remained quiet for a long time. Kenneth drew a hand over his mouth and shook his head.

“You’re my brother,” he finally admitted. “No matter what happened between us, I would take your place right now, if I could.”

“Did I not tell you, Grant?” Malcolm laughed, but the laugh drowned in a cough.

Kenneth whipped around to find Grant standing just inside the doorway. He leaned against the frame, and his jaw worked as he frowned in Kenneth’s direction. “Aye, you said as much,” the man growled.

“What’s this about, then?” Kenneth demanded. His shoulders stiffened, and he rested his hand on the short sword at his hip.

The corners of Malcolm’s lips curved up into a smile that nearly wasn’t one. He blinked slowly, and when he opened his eyes again, his blue eyes appeared a little glassy. “I’m dying, Kenn.”

“Nay, you’re not,” Kenneth said.

“‘Tis naught to fash yourself over,” Malcolm said. “I’ve made my peace with myself and my Lord. The only one I’ve not made peace with is you.”

“What happened is in the past now.” Kenneth shook his head in an attempt to banish the painful memories. The last thing he wanted now was to relive what was fast becoming the second most painful day of his life, after this one.

“But ‘tis not, is it?” Malcolm asked. “Not for either of us. If things were different, you’d be here, in my place, and I’d be in yours.”

“Or hanged.”

The corner of Malcolm’s lips tipped upward. “Right. I’d forgotten your sentence.”

“Of course you did.” Kenneth hadn’t intended for his voice to sound as bitter as it did.

He leaned against the hearth, but the room was as hot as blazes, so he moved over to the window. As he brushed the heavy drapes aside, he placed his palm against the glass. The surface felt damp and cool, a stark contrast to the furnace of this room.

On the other side of the glass were the rolling hills of the Highlands, where his band of outcasts waited for him to return. Out there, he faced both freedom and the imminent threat of death.

But the latter was never far in the Highlands. Famine and cold, sickness and war with other clans, had been a part of his reality for as long as he could remember, whether he’d been safely inside the heart of a clan or not.

“I meant no offense.”

Kenneth acknowledged his brother with a nod, but didn’t turn from the window.

“I once did you a grievous wrong, Kenn.”

“Aye.”

“I can’t make up for all you lost.”

“Tis in the past.” Kenneth closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool glass.

“Nay. But now I’m dying, and I want to give you what you once gave me. I want to give you a life.”

Kenneth laughed, bitterly. “Will you simply summon the sheriff? Explain ‘twas naught but a misunderstanding?” He raised his face at the ceiling, where a fat rat raced along one of the beams. “You cannot change the decisions I made. I may not have partaken in the first crime, but the others? They are mine. I’m guilty of the ones the sheriff kens, and several more he does not. Took me a while, but I earned the hanging I’ll get if I’m caught.”

“Doona be ridiculous,” Grant snapped. “Of course we would not sully the good name of the laird of Clan Mackay. ‘Tis bad enough it has come to this.”

Kenneth’s eyes darted from his brother to Grant and back again. He shifted his weight, put his hand on the rapier at his hip, thought better of it, and relaxed his hands. “Come to what?”

“The life I want to give you is not yours, Kenn.” Malcolm closed his eyes, and his voice shook. “‘Tis mine.”

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