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ENGLAND , 1165
THIS WAS THE SCARY PLACE.
Lauren didn’t know another name for it, this menacing room, all thick stone walls and no windows and the smell of death hanging in the air.
She didn’t know where exactly it was, this place, this room. But the people here had peculiar clothing and glittering eyes. They were all men—big, angry men— who looked down and through her, as if she were not really here in the scary place but just her ghost was, and they had caught a glimpse of the Lauren-ghost hiding in the dark corners.
She wished that it were true, that she wasn’t really here. She wished it were just her ghost trapped here in the shadows, and not she herself.
They hated her. That was clear. They said her name in loud, jeering voices.They tossed in food to her carelessly, letting it slop on the floor. They gave her water that turned her stomach, that tasted like sweat.
There was no pallet to rest on. No furniture of any kind, in fact, although one of the walls had long, heavy chains hanging down from iron pegs embedded in the stone. Otherwise, there was only a single blanket, filthy and torn, crawling with unpleasantness. She left it crumpled in one of the corners, by the chains.
Lauren didn’t know how long she had been here— days? Weeks? She almost didn’t remember how she had come here. She had been out with Da, she remembered that. He had taken her from Shot for the very first time in her life, to celebrate her eighth birthday. Da and she and a group of men had gotten on the largest ship they had and sailed to the mainland, to visit their friends there: Clan MacBain, allied with Clan Baird, allied with Clan Ramsay, allied with Clan Murdoch, allied with Clan Colquhoun. . . .
An ally was a friend, she knew that. Da had many friends.
And he had been so proud of her. Lauren had behaved properly on the voyage over. She had avoided the masts and the rigging and not caused any trouble at all, just as she knew he expected of her. The sky had been as bright as bluebells, clear and warm. The ocean wind had felt wonderful on her face, as always—clean, alive. She had loved the voyage, the water rushing past her in joyous tones and vibrant colors. She was almost sad when they docked at the mainland, but that had been overridden by the excitement of everything else.
Da, leading her off the boat to the green land before them, holding her hand. Hugs all around, people exclaiming over her, the shade of her hair—exactly like her mother’s, they had said. Her smile—the image of the laird’s, they said. Like Da’s. Happy voices and helpful hands leading her forward into them, to the village beyond the docks.
Since they were the friends of her own clan, she had felt no reservations at all in chatting with them, letting them admire her and admiring them in return. Da walked beside her, talking in his low, gravelly voice, and it had seemed to Lauren MacRae that in that moment the world was simply a perfect place. She had her father, she had these new friends, she had her home back on Shot and the blue sky above her, and what could be finer than any of that?
Then it had happened. While they were still walking, before they could even reach the heart of the village, the bad men had come.They had swift horses and maces and swords, and Da and the rest had raced around, shouting. Hands yanked at her, pulling her this way and that, and it was all so confusing. She couldn’t see anything but legs and horses, everything and everyone were so much taller than she.
Da had been howling her name, and she had shouted back, trying to run to him. But then someone new took her, one of the bad men. He had clamped a hand over her mouth and lifted her up high onto his horse with him. Now she could see everything, all right, all the chaos and the fighting and the savage dances of the swords and maces of the different men. She even caught a glimpse of Da, battling furiously with three of the bad men, still turning his head to search for her. She had screamed from behind the hand over her mouth. And then they had ridden away and she had been helpless to escape, though she had tried very hard. She had bitten the man who held her; she had struggled and kicked even though she was on a very tall horse, and falling to the ground would probably hurt a lot. The man holding her had muttered something and then there was a flashing pain on the side of her head, and then . . .
Lauren had woken up here.
It was cold and damp and had frightening black shadows, and no one would answer any of her questions.
It hadn’t mattered if she asked politely, as Hannah had taught her, or if she yelled and called them names, cursing them with all the words she had secretly learned from eavesdropping on the stableboys. The men here would not speak to her. They would not even look at her, hunched up in her corner.
Except for one. Except for one boy.
He had come in with the laird—at least Lauren thought it was the laird, although she had not heard him called that. The odd laird was dressed as strangely as all the others, with no tartan at all, but rather a very elaborate tunic, with many colors and fancy stitchwork all over it.Yet for all the fanciness, Lauren was not fooled: This man was the cause of the death stench. It came from him, it washed out and away from him, rushing over to her in splintering waves.
As he walked into the cell, one of the guards bowed to him and called him “milord du Morgan.” As soon as Lauren heard that name, she knew she was going to die here in the scary place.
The du Morgans were the clan of the devil. Everyone knew that.
The du Morgan devil had come into her prison with nothing but a sneer on his face and foul words on his lips, carrying that stench. Like all the other men, he had not looked directly at her, but rather around her, at her hair, at her clothing, at her hands. The boy walked in slowly behind him, masked with the same murky darkness that consumed the rest of the room.
Lauren stood up tall and tried not to tremble, for Da wouldn’t want her to show any fear to the devil. “Chin up,” Da would have said. “Look him straight in the eye, Lauren.You’re a MacRae.You bow to no one.” So she had stiffened her spine and glared up at the devil, though inside her stomach had been all shivery and her fingers and toes felt like ice.
And the devil had stood in front of her and talked about her—not to her, about her—to the lad behind him, who had stood silent, with an air of unhappiness shrouding him.
“Pathetic,” ridiculed the devil, squinting his narrow demon eyes at her. “Notice well, Arion, the surly demeanor of it. Notice well the pagan color of its hair, the paleness of its skin. It is an inferior creature, all in all. Hardly worth the effort of securing it.”
Lauren realized that she was the “it” in his words. She kept her head up, eyes forward, just as Da would have told her to.
“Mac-Rae,” the devil smirked, making her name sound long and drawn out, a distortion of the syllables. “This is all they have to unite with their allies, this dismal female. And see how it quakes, Arion. See the weakness of its stock. Our enemy has come to a sad end indeed, to pin their hopes on this wretched child.” “I am not quaking,” Lauren had said then, the first time she had dared address the devil.
But he ignored her words, just as all the others had.
“Simple,” the devil mocked, dressed in his strange finery, holding a hand up to his nose, as if to block out her smell.“Weak. Common. Learn well from this, Nephew. See how easy it is to control your enemy.”
The boy had not stopped staring at her, and so at last Lauren released her futile gaze on the devil-laird to glare back at the devil’s nephew. He, at least, was meeting her look.
He was almost no longer a boy, Lauren could tell. He had the same lanky frame as her cousin Quinn, who was five years older than she.This boy was probably the same age, if the devil’s family aged as mortals did. His hair was coal black, and his eyes were dark and troubled.
“Our king thinks to placate us with the division of Shot,” said the devil in a voice that deepened the cold in the room tenfold. “He grows weary of our island war, he says. So he panders to the Scottish king, and they drink their wine and congratulate each other on the peace they think they have scraped together. But know this, Arion: Their maps and lines and proclamations do not alter the truth. The Isle of Shot lies nearer to the coast of England, not Scotland. Our ancestors were there before the Scots. No matter who orders us to peace, the du Morgan family claims all of the island, and nothing will stop us from fulfilling that claim. Certainly not this feeble creature here, this little nothing.”
“I am not afraid of you,” Lauren had lied then, trying to inject scorn into her tone.
The devil casually crossed to her and slapped her hard across the face, sending her reeling back against the wall. She thought she heard the boy exclaim, but her head had struck the stone and she wasn’t certain. Lauren stayed there, dazed, as the shock of it wore off.
“A very little nothing,” the devil said coolly.“And so easy to kill. Remember, Arion. Someday all of Shot— and all the power it represents—will be yours. This insignificant thing here is what you will need to dispatch to make it so.” He turned away from her, to the boy. “Alas, however, not today. But someday. Someday soon.”
The du Morgan devil had left then, and the boy had followed, throwing just one more glance at her over his shoulder before he was gone.
That had been today, Lauren was fairly certain. Time was tricky here in the scary place, and she couldn’t count it out right, since it was always dark. But she thought that visit had been today.
The lamp they had left her was almost out of oil. She could tell by the way the flame grew puny and thin, a bare blue light against the heavy darkness. Soon it would be gone completely, and the blackness would take over everything.The death air would grow bolder in the darkness. Death was afraid of light.
Lauren sat down against the wall with her arms wrapped around her knees, shivering from the cold and the fear and the misery that ate away at her. She kept a fold of her tartan pressed up against her face, her cheek, breathing in the faint scent of Shot and trying to find some of the bravery she was sure must be hidden in it. She was going to die here. What an awful thing, to die, and never see the sky again, or touch the warm sand, or swim in the ocean. Never again sleep in her corner room at Keir Castle.Never hold a starfish again, never watch dolphins weaving through the waves, never climb another tree, never see Da or Hannah or any of her family again . . .
Except for Mama, up in heaven. Mama was there. Surely that had to be something. She must have slept some, for when she lifted her head the flame from the lamp was completely gone, and the only light seeping in came from the uneven sliver of space between the door to her prison and the floor. Lauren lowered her head again and closed her eyes, clutching the fold of tartan over her mouth, trying to hold on to her memories of her home.