I jumped naked from my bed, the stone floor bracing against my bare feet and the early morning chill raising quick goosebumps on my flesh. The clash of swords and shouts of men I led into battle nightly in my dreams still rang in my ears before I stretched and let the images fade away.
Last night’s full moon still lingered and false dawn approached, that liminal moment when the sun has yet to appear. My ancestors believed it heralded glimpses of the future and great secrets to be shared. Me? I thought it time to be up and about.
Throwing on my shirt, kilt and boots and strapping my claymore to my back, I descended the steep steps from the north tower. Despite myself, I sensed something of import with the night’s Hawthorn moon—a time of masculine power, potency and fertility, even more so than the other eleven months of the year.
Fingers of heavy mist crept across the vast estate toward me, intensifying the fresh woodsy scents of heather and moss. The low-lying fog obscured my long view of forest and hedgerows, but I knew they were there.
Untold numbers of Creigs had carved this land and battlements out of solid rock eons ago on Eilean maddah-allaidh, or Wolf Island as it was known to those from away, creating a legacy that would stand for generations to come. A sanctuary that was mine to oversee and care for…which included being alive to any messages sent my way.
“Okay, fine,” I sighed to whomever or whatever might be listening, and, giving in, stood in the shadow of Castle Creigbourne, awaiting a glimpse of what lay beyond the ken.
An intense flickering in my peripheral vision hit my senses hard before the world disappeared entirely, sending me back to that timeless realm with no name and no season. Then a glimmering of light appeared as my third eye opened, sending flashes of blue and gold to strike my retinas. The blue of eyes and the gold of hair?
I grasped for more but the partial image vanished in an instant. “That all?” I snarked, shaking off the disquiet that the vision left in its wake. No answer came. Shrugging, I strode across the ground toward the stables. The first rays of light glinted on the dewy grass now as the sun returned, creating a field of ephemeral sparkling diamonds that never failed to put all human efforts to shame.
A series of soft chuffs broke the quiet stillness as Loki came trotting over to greet me. The legendary deerhound voted most likely to be mistaken for a large pony swiped his tail to a steady beat.
“Ah, this is the time we like best, isn’t it, my Loki boy?” I bent to give his thick, wiry fur a quick rub.
He followed me into the stable, sneezing as the sharp scent of manure tickled his nose. I opened the door to Roam’s stall, then led the magnificent stallion out into the alleyway and swiftly saddled him. The scent of oiled leather and clean horse flesh permeated the air, grounding me.
I swung a leg up and over the coal-black beast, both of us impatient to be off. Roam stomped the hard ground with loud thumps of his massive hooves. A destrier, he was of sturdy stock with bloodlines that harked back to tournament fields and knights in armor. He needed to be to carry the likes of this Highlander—six-foot-three of solid muscle, thanks to the daily regime of the claymore.
A loud whinny of agreement followed, the stallion’s breath whitening the brisk air in pillowy clouds as we surged away from Castle Creigbourne. I gave Roam his head and we raced across the glen, Loki running by our side, the three of us as ancient as any legend.
“Creigbourne Loch?” I suggested.
Roam knew the way and barely needed my touch on the reins before his strong haunches were eating up the miles across a greenscape as brilliant as any that existed on this Earth. For one brief moment I caught a glimpse of the spot where my cousin’s fated mate had died. Averting my eyes, I forced the image away. It was far too beautiful a day to spend grieving for what could not be changed…although it haunted me.
The clean air and the colors of nature worked their usual wonder on me and helped to place the morning’s vision in perspective. “Second sight is sometimes a gift, sometimes a curse,” I told my animals. Which was the hazy impression sent to me this morning? The blue and gold could be either, depending on opinion.
Blue eyes, gold hair… Personally, I was not looking for the female prophesized by the elderly woman at last year’s Spirit of Creigbourne festival. I had no need of distraction. My life in the Highlands of Scotland was filled with dealing with the needs of my clan, and I’d have it no other way. Family honor and loyalty was everything.
The edge of the loch loomed and I dismounted. My shirt tugged over my head, I threw it on the ground and took up my broadsword.
Swiping and lunging at demons and enemies, I cut a swathe across the clearing. Under the canopy of forest, I swung the claymore with precision and speed, savoring the perfectly balanced weapon in my hand. It was born of the finest steel and crafted with such remarkable precision that I’d been offered a king’s ransom for its possession. Never. Not enough money on this earth to entice me to part with the pride of clan Creig.
An hour later, my bare chest dripping with perspiration that pooled in the ridges and valleys of my fairly earned six-pack, I removed my sturdy boots and kilt and dove into the frigid waters of Creigbourne Loch.
Sluicing back my long hair from my face, I swam out a fair distance from the rocky shore, enjoying the pull on muscles that were well-used from my workout. A bark from Loki and a whinny from Roam alerted me a second before a long-winged shadow skimmed across the water. I stilled, treading in place for a moment to observe the interloper. Damn.
The fierce falcon, named Tyr after a special god of bravery—a nod to my ancient Norse ancestors and to The Creig—settled on a rock nearby, his golden eyes beady and ever watchful. Then with a series of proud screeches to announce his departure, the giant bird of prey flapped his shoulders, rising into the air on powerful wings designed to catch the wind currents home or to hunt.
I swam swiftly to shore and pulled on my boots. Wrapping my kilt around my waist, uncaring of my wet skin, I whistled for Roam and Loki. “Time to head in. We have a visitor waiting,” I told them.
The ride back to the castle was all too short. I curried Roam and fed him fresh carrots on top of his full share of oats and nutrients, making sure the stallion had all his needs met before heading into the conservatory where the visitor whose herald had summoned me held court.
I rolled my shoulders, the unease of dealing with whatever had prompted the visit bringing back the tension that my early morning exercise had almost eliminated. I had no choice on the matter though—when this visitor called, any Creig with a whit of sense answered.
I girded my loins and strode through the doorway. “Morning, Grandmother.”
“Morning, Grandson,” The Creig, the elder of the clan, replied, turning her stately head with its elegant upswept hairdo to present her cheek for my buss. Dressed in the customary Creigbourne tartan of black and green plaid with gold threads running through it, she perched on her throne, slight enough to be blown away in a stiff breeze. However, no one in their right mind would dare share that intel.
“Ye’re soaking wet, Lachlan. Dinna ye think to bring a towel?”
I laughed. “No need. I have the constitution of an ox, the strength of a bull and the fortitude of a conqueror. Why waste time?”
“And the lasses in these parts would add…and a heart of stone,” she said, then added, “Aye, but yer right, it’s precious it is, time. Never enough of it.”
She nodded sagely, her piercing green eyes still not requiring correction though she was ninety if she were a day. No woman admits her age, according to The Creig. She’d been thirty-nine forever before she finally quit discussing the matter entirely. Her birthday cake was only allowed one candle to this day.
“What brings you here on this fine morning?” I asked though a pall had been laid over the morning. I sat down across from her. Might as well get it over with. The Creig never showed up unless something difficult was afoot. Unease reared itself in my mind, making my nerves rankle. I knew the next words out of her mouth would have a cost.
“Ye’re needed in America, Grandson. Cristaldo of the House of Luceres has asked for our help in a personal matter and has a business opportunity he wishes to discuss. Which means it’s time to pay our debt to him.”
She looked at me more keenly when I remained stubbornly silent. I detested owing a duty. So often the wishes of another burdened beyond compare.
“But I see ye already knew something of this.” She pursed her lips. “If the second sight is talking to ye, then it’s settled.”
I ignored her last words, instead pushing myself out of the chair and beginning to pace. I preferred to think on my feet. “I have a great deal on my plate at the moment, taking care of our vast holdings. I can’t just rush off to America at the whim of another.”
I was venting, knowing I would have to answer the call. As head of the clan, paying the ancient debt the Creigs owed to the house of Luceres fell to me, and I would honor that, not even think about sending my brothers, Calan or Logan, or even one of our cousins.
“I knew it would come to this one day, but not now,” I muttered. A warrior chooses his own path, his own battles. Of course, once I wanted something, I would not be deterred from obtaining it by any means necessary. How else could I have doubled our billions in the past decade alone? “But, of course, honor above all.”
“Aye.” The Creig picked up her dram of spirits she’d poured earlier. She swallowed it a single gulp. “Spectacular year.”
“It is.” I waited for her to come to the point.
“Was your vision any clearer this morn?” Her question hung in the air between us, those few words filled with more portent than the most dramatic soliloquy and, knowing what she was asking, I shook my head, a bit more riled than I let on.
She leaned forward to add weight to her words. “Well, ye must think of the future, Grandson. Ye are heir to all we possess, as is the right of the first born. And ye are not getting any younger.” She pointed her glass at me. “And neither am I. Would you deny me grandchildren?”
I snorted. “You’re going to live forever. And it’s blatantly unfair, the structure of inheritance. Archaic laws that need changing.”
“Be that as it may, if ye canna find your mate on this side of the water, she may exist in the new world.”
Her words clanged like warning bells, especially when allied to the reason for her visit. “Grandmother, I’m not looking to upend my life. A lass from another country with a different culture causes too many complications. I have too many responsibilities right here. Obligations that cannot be set aside on the whim of another.”
“We must learn from the past, but embrace the present, Grandson. You won’t be the first to cross the water for your mate. Your one. Besides, it might lighten ye up!”
I grimaced and let The Creig’s words sink in as she poured us both a drink of Scotland’s finest. My life was so regimented, the needs of others firmly set before my own, as it should be for the alpha of a clan, especially one who needed to lighten Grandmother’s load as she aged.
And yes, over the quickly passing years, I had become less light-hearted and more solemn, though the love of wit and laughter called strongly at times. Things an adult must set aside. Isn’t that the proper way of it? Not kicking over the traces?
I glanced at my favorite painting of all time, hanging in its place on the conservatory wall. Backlit spectacularly by the artist, it depicted my great-grandfather doing a sleight-of-hand magic trick, a gaggle of his grandchildren huddled at his feet, their tiny faces alight with amazement.
I’d always been fascinated by stories of him, and his personality, leading to my lifelong enjoyment and practice of the art of magic, everything from close-up to illusionist tricks. My brothers had called me cracked for spending long hours at this, but I enjoyed it and had got pretty skilled.
Then, as if Great-Grandfather were calling to me, a thought struck me. If I had to visit Las Vegas, or Sin City as it was more rightly called, maybe I could recapture something of my lighter side, and do something I’d always wanted to do? Take some recompense for the interruption to my life? Could I? I looked at Great-Grandfather. Yes.
“Fine. But I get to do it my way,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
The Creig’s eyes gleamed with interest and she stared at me, but I remained stubbornly silent. Where do you think I got my need to turn the world my way? She tilted her head, as if listening to something I couldn’t hear, then nodded. “Good. It’s settled then. Now, how about some breakfast?”
Taken aback, I muttered, “Of course,” and mulled over the situation while we ate the tempting dishes the servants brought at her request. I quickly consumed vast quantities of steak and bacon, sausage and eggs with sides of toast and oatcakes in short order. I had a great deal of preparing to do and little time to accomplish it.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere I need to be.”
The Creig nodded as I took my leave, her expression expressing pleasure at the outcome of our meeting. As if it were ever in doubt. I always uphold the honor of our family.
“Off with ye, grandson. I look forward to my invite.”
The Creig had passed the second sight on to me, the first born, though her advancing years had added immeasurably to her ability. She knew far more than she would ever admit about what awaited me in Vegas, but it would be no use asking her to divulge it, and I was too proud to beg.
Exiting the castle, I tore off my kilt and boots, ready for my real exercise—my wolf run. Creigs were weres, our secret ancestral heritage, and this would be my last chance before heading off to Sin City. I wanted it to count. I wanted to feel the wind in my fur, the scent of life in my lungs and the world dropping away as I raced across the moors.
I pushed my way from our realm through the glimmering portal into the next dimension so tantalizingly close to ours, the process necessary to shift my energy from man to wolf, the actual transformation occurring in an instant. All those painful experiences expressed in novels? Patently untrue for any werewolf I knew—a small mercy.
The world had now mutated to an array of colors unknown to the human eye, blacks and browns and grays with subtle shadings that my brain converted to what my human side saw—blues and greens, yellow and reds. I breathed in deeply, my olfactory nerves sharpened by the cool, moist morning Highland air, each scent more rousing than the last.
A chorus of howls erupted in the distance, begging me to join them. I took off at a quick lope, overcome with a sense of urgency. This might be my last chance for a while.
I slipped off the bonds of duty, my worries over the Creig estate and concerns about the journey to America. Instead, I embraced my animal nature, letting it take over. The grasses compressed beneath my massive paws, acting like a springboard to my prowling.
I stood taller and larger than the thought-to-be-extinct dire wolf and, blessed with sharper tracking ability, soon picked up the scent trail of Calan and Logan.
Around a thick stand of birch and oak trees, I caught sight of them with my superior vision, my younger brothers lying in ambush, hoping to catch me unaware. My wolf mouth stretched in a grin.
I’d teach them a thing or two.