The Saint (Highland Brides, book 3)
Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
Release date: 20/01/2019
The raspy voice, dragged over granite, caught Callum’s attention and pulled it from the hopelessness pressing down around him. A foul breath wheezed out from the man’s crusted mouth and whistled and crackled as new air was sucked back in. Wasted air.
‘Mmyy daauughter …’
Every word was long, as if the effort it took to speak earned each sound the right to last forever. These three were the most Thane had said to Cal in one sitting during the past two weeks since he’d arrived in this place of suffering and sorrow. Aside from his name on one occasion and water on another, sleep had been the only constant word Thane had repeated and Cal had been content.
‘Sooo prouudd …’
Something deep in Callum’s chest clenched at the praise this dying man bestowed upon his daughter. Praise he’d give anything to hear his unknown father say of him.
‘Taakee Isla soouutthh …’
Was this to be Thane’s dying wish? Cal wished Thane to sleep. Now, before he said anything more. Cal’s gut tightened. He couldn’t make any deathbed promises. He just didn’t have anything more to give.
‘Restenneth … Priorryy …’
He refused to look into the man’s eyes. He didn’t know the place he spoke of. Had no clue as to where it was or how long it would take to get there. His gaze shifted to the dirty dressings unravelling from the bloody fingers of Thane’s right hand. Fingers that lifted free of the pallet, claw-like, as if adding their silent plea.
‘Truusstt nae onneee …’
Why? Who wanted to do Thane’s daughter harm? God above. Cal didn’t want to know. His gut twisted. He couldn’t know.
‘Tell herrr … I … Loovee herrr …’
Inflamed blue eyes met his and as he stared into the unclear depths, something flickered and the fear lessened and something else brightened.
‘God blesss yyee …’
Relief? Had Cal agreed? He hadn’t said a word, but as the light faded from Thane’s gaze, he wrestled with the thought that he’d given some sort of sign of acceptance in fulfilling Thane’s last wish. He hadn’t meant to. He didn’t want to.
He stared down into dry, bloodshot eyes fixed open by death. Windows to the soul now empty and forever shuttered to the sun setting on another full day of hardship, pain and exclusion. A chill awakened and spread icy tendrils upwards and outwards until he could feel its coldness in each extremity, felt its freezing pulse in every pore.
What in God’s name was he doing here?
He flexed his numbed fingers and carefully reached for the edges of the coarse wool blanket draping the lower half of Thane’s lifeless form. His hands trembled. He clenched his teeth at the sight of his weakness, the visible evidence of his fear. He shouldn’t be here. He’d never get used to seeing death. Not like this.
‘A prayer for ’is soul?’
Callum turned at the sound of the words that rolled and skipped off the tongue of the man who’d left his homeland of Prague to sail to Scotland more than ten years before. Brown eyes filled with compassion and a peace that could only come from within looked back at him. Callum wanted to know such contentment.
‘A prayer—’ Callum’s voice cracked. He paused and cleared his throat. ‘A prayer from you will better serve his soul, Brother Mirek.’
Cal had already prayed for this man’s soul. It had done little good. He’d sickened further and now … Cal had continued to pray, hoping his charity toward another would aid his own cause. What would Brother Mirek think of him if he knew? Or did he? The amber gaze watching him did not alter in judgement now and never had in the two weeks since Callum had arrived in Aberdeen. He’d meant to stay one week. He should have moved on.
‘I ’eard ’is confession,’ Brother Mirek said quietly. ‘But it was you ’oo gifted ’is soul with your presence. ’e did not pass alone.’
Callum’s gift had cost him a promise he didn’t want to keep.
He turned and glimpsed the vacant orbs still staring up at him. Eyes that a short time ago had bulged with fear, not because he was dying, not for himself, but for another. His daughter.
He’d begged and against Cal’s wants and wishes, he must have accepted. Despite not wanting to be embroiled in something he knew nothing of, how could he not?
Truusstt nae onnee …
What in God’s name had he got himself into?
Tell herrr … I … Loovee herrr …
The pinprick of ever-present emptiness expanded inside his chest. He pulled the woollen blanket up to conceal the roughened and disfigured lumps of protruding skin covering Thane’s face and resembling porous stones scattered across a windswept land.
The smell of decay and sorrow filled the air he drew into his lungs and drove him to his feet. He strode from the long stifling chamber and over the uneven cobbles marking the leper house’s entrance, crushing blades of green grass beneath his booted feet as he weaved his way through the graves, some old, some new, some marked, others not. He stopped at the solid stone cross that had lured him here and closed his eyes.
The scent of death was blessedly swept away by a sudden gust of wind that smelt of summer and salt and fish and tasted of the sea. But the hopelessness remained, for it came from within and nothing he’d seen and no one he’d spoken to in nigh on a year had been able to give him the answers he’d scoured the Highlands to find. The sight of every stone cross he’d stumbled upon had caused his heart to clench in his chest with the hope that this time, this cross, was the one he’d stood in front of as a lad. But hope had lessened with the passing of time. He was searching for his origins; he craved peace.
He couldn’t stay here any longer, pretending to devote his life to others, testing and prodding the Almighty as a means of erasing the sins of his mother. Living among the wretches struck down by God’s hand with an illness that aged men, women and even children far beyond their years, until finally death.
Cal opened his eyes and speared his fingers through his hair. He’d made hard choices earlier in his life and upheld them, believing he’d sacrificed enough. He obviously hadn’t. What more could he do? Or was the loneliness, and the ever-present turmoil that kept him searching for ways to make amends for something not his doing, to be his lot in life?
‘You are leaving to meet Duff and Adair, the friends you spoke of?’
Brother Mirek’s calm words sounded as he approached. Fingers worn and weathered by work gently clasped one another and rested against his stomach. Each step he took was slow and measured, his long black cloak hiding his white tunic and his feet, making it look as if he floated rather than walked. He stopped beside Cal and his knowing gaze settled on him. The man had a way of drawing information before Cal was aware of saying anything at all. Thane had obviously been gifted with the same talent.
‘Aye, but there is something I must do before I go to Braemar.’ Certain things, dying wishes given beneath a cloak of silence, must never be shared. Not even with Brother Mirek.
‘In the New Town?’
‘If you can wait until I give one final blessing,’ Brother Mirek said, pausing to gesture where four men carried Thane’s shrouded body to the freshly dug grave, ‘I will accompany you to the New Town.’
Cal turned away from the body being lowered into the earth. They wasted no time. There was no reason to. Any farewells had been said and done long ago when the sufferer had been forced from his home and his loved ones. He’d seen enough. ‘I will gather my things and meet you by the gate.’
Brother Mirek nodded and left to give his blessing.
How many blessings had he given? Since Cal’s arrival, two men, Thane and another, had come to join the many who suffered not only from the visible signs of the disease, but also the loss of feeling to fingers, toes and limbs. They’d been torn from their families and escorted here to spend the rest of their lives waiting for death. Some had been here for years, while Thane’s stay had been short. His daughter had now been alone for two weeks.
He sucked in a deep breath, and with long strides headed toward the outbuilding used to store the supplies for the crops they grew to feed the sick and those who cared for them. In the last two weeks it had also sheltered a pig and a cow given over by someone hoping their donation would save their own soul.
He stepped inside the dim interior and Mungo swung his long nose toward the stable entrance before trotting over to the stall’s gate, as if he sensed pending freedom. Cal opened the gate and stepped within the squared space he’d called home for the past two weeks. Mungo lowered his head and nudged Cal’s side as he turned to relatch the gate.
‘You still have the need to learn patience.’ His words were brushed aside by a second, more forceful shove to his hip. Callum understood his mount’s impatience, for he suffered it too. He turned and cradled Mungo’s bay-coloured head in the crook of his arm and soothed the beast with firm strokes down his black-tipped nose. ‘Give me a few moments to gather my things and we will go.’
Callum walked to the rear of the stall and knelt beside the pile of straw that butted up against the stable’s wattle and daub wall and had served as his bed. He brushed aside the straw and grasped a corner of the hide he used beneath Mungo’s saddle. He shook it free of dirt and dust and flipped it aside.
He held still for a moment to study the length of steel the hide had concealed. Leaning forward, he wrapped his fingers around the hilt and savoured the sense of calm, like taking the hand of an old friend. The comforting thought reminded him again of his two closest friends. Friends he hadn’t seen in almost a year. He stared at the blade, but it was Duff and Adair’s faces that flashed through his mind.
Had either of them found their family? Or like him, had they failed in their quest for answers? His fingers clenched about the hilt. He’d know soon enough. He willed his hand to relax and stood to prepare his mount.
Cal secured his sack of belongings to Mungo’s saddle, and for the first time in two weeks he fixed his sword at his waist. He led his horse out into the afternoon’s lowering sun, keeping his focus on the iron gate as he fought down the mixed feelings of relief and guilt. He was free to go. Most here were not.
He halted beside the stone wall that surrounded the leper house and its lands and looked to where the disease’s latest victim had been laid to rest.
Other than the new mound of dirt, there was nothing and no one to see. The men who’d carried the deceased to his grave had resumed the tasks that filled endless spaces of time and gave them and their restricted and cruelly measured lives a purpose.
Gone. Only his memory, a daughter, and an unfulfilled promise remained.
Cal’s heartbeat suddenly doubled and his gaze darted from the grave to the leper house and then to the bakehouse at the rear of the main structure, before he glanced at the sturdy gate. Now he’d decided to go, he wanted to go now. He needed to be free of the wretched enclosure. He looked back and thankfully saw Brother Mirek emerging from the smaller building, carrying his leather pouch.
Curling his hand into a fist, Cal made the sign of the cross in his mind and silently urged the friar to hurry. He dragged a full breath into his lungs.
‘I am pleased you waited, Callum. The walk to the New Town isn’t so far, but I will enjoy your company.’
‘And I yours, Brother Mirek.’
The friar smiled and moved closer to the gate.
‘You dinnae have a horse?’
‘A ’orse is not necessary,’ the man of God said over his shoulder.’ I ’ave two good legs that carry me wherever I ’ave need to go.’
Cal had heard of priests who travelled everywhere on foot and through all manner of weather. The knowledge humbled him. But the pace was also much slower. Cal preferred to get to wherever he needed to be sooner rather than later. He couldn’t imagine life without Mungo.
Brother Mirek opened the gate and ushered Callum and his horse through.
He breathed deeply of the sense of freedom enveloping him as he waited for the friar to secure the gate. Cal peered north, past Spital Hill in the direction he’d come when he’d first arrived in the town of Aberdeen. The town on the east coast of Scotland he’d learned had two towns, one old and one new. He’d ridden through the Old Town with its grand Cathedral of St Marchar, but hadn’t stayed, continuing on to the leper house positioned at a good and safe distance between the two. He would now visit the New Town, but only briefly.
His year of travelling the Highlands in search of his past had given him the chance to taste what life would be like if he were to fully commit himself to God and to the sick. His experiences only left him feeling more confused. He might have visited and learned his way around Scotland, but in his heart and soul, he felt more lost than ever.
He turned and looked to the south and found Brother Mirek standing, hands casually clasped, his expression at ease, his amber eyes filled with calm as they patiently rested on him. He wanted to apologise for keeping the friar waiting but he was tired of feeling inadequate in front of this man.
He gave a single nod and started walking toward the New Town. If he understood Brother Mirek’s reasons for becoming a friar, the knowledge might rid him of the doubts plaguing him about following the same path. ‘Why did you leave your homeland?’
They’d walked half the length of the stone wall surrounding the leper house before Brother Mirek replied. ‘I didn’t leave, I fled.’
Everything within Cal, his breath, his heartbeat, stopped for a moment. Fled wasn’t a term he expected Brother Mirek to use when speaking of himself. He looked at the man beside him, hoping his attention encouraged him to say more.
‘There was nothing left there for me, no reason to stay.’
‘You had nae family?’
‘Once.’ A small smile curved Brother Mirek’s mouth and he continually nodded as if he were seeing and remembering them now. ‘Prague changed with King Charles’s death.’ The smile disappeared and the nodding altered to a slow shaking of his head. ‘The son … so much unrest … the Jews—’ The friar drew a long breath.
Cal witnessed the tight-lipped and pained expression Brother Mirek now wore. He straightened to his full height.
Brother Mirek waved his hand before him, as if tossing grain to the chickens. ‘I walked and walked and gained passage aboard a ship from Danzig to Aberdeen. Prague too ’as an Old Town and a New.’
‘Why did you become a friar?’
Again, there was a long pause with only the sound of the dirt road they travelled crunching beneath their feet and Mungo’s hooves.
‘I was chosen.’
Cal frowned and his mind raced. By God? Had losing his family led him to believe he was chosen? Had a wife been part of that family?
‘You never wed?’
‘Marriage is not for everyone. Marriage was not for me. I ’ad my studies and continued to learn when I reached your Scotland, though no longer at university.’
Cal had believed Brother Mirek to be a learned man, but university? The weighted feeling of inferiority returned tenfold. He’d foolishly believed there was a plan for him, a reason why he’d been orphaned as a lad. He’d been blessed the day he’d been found wandering Clan Elliot’s lands. They’d taken him in and he’d been educated along with the laird’s son, Lachlan, and two other orphans, Duff and Adair. All three were now his greatest friends and he’d do anything for them, but despite his good fortune, the unpleasant memories of his mother enticing men into her bed never left him. He’d never married, never once lain with a woman in his twenty-four years, believing his abstinence would right his mother’s wicked ways. Had his sacrifice been for naught?
His hand closed about the hilt of his sword. He’d had enough. Of searching, of wandering, of attempting to right another’s wrongs, of feeling lost while waiting to be shown where his path should lead and what his life’s plan was to be. He’d given enough. He’d make his own plan and follow the path of his own making.
He’d escort Thane’s daughter to the priory, then on his return journey to meet up with Duff and Adair in Braemar, he’d explore the stone crosses between Brechin and Forfar that priests and friars had mentioned during the last year. He’d seen hundreds of crosses in his travels and hoped they offered more than further disappointment. Not in the crosses themselves, for some were works of art, but he’d known enough disappointment at not finding the one he carried in his memory to last him the rest of his days.
He’d searched, he’d asked, he’d looked. He was ready to return to the Elliot clan in the Borders and get on with his life. If he didn’t find the cross he was searching for, then he’d force himself to find a measure of peace he’d hoped, but hadn’t yet found, in the Highlands.
He peered ahead at the sentries manning the timber gate leading into the New Town.
‘I learn from God and I learn from men.’ Brother Mirek’s voice broke into his thoughts and his palm settled on Cal’s forearm, drawing them to a halt. ‘From life and death. I listen, I watch, I pray, I learn.’ He removed his hand and smiled at Cal. ‘I suggest you conceal your weapon before we draw nearer to the gate.’
Cal secured his sword to Mungo’s saddle before lifting the hide beneath and covering his weapon. They resumed walking and Brother Mirek continued speaking.
‘I believe all men are part of God’s flock, but ’ave different roles within the ’erd. Some lead, some follow, some are ’ere for a long stay, while others,’ Brother Mirek paused a moment, ‘only make a brief appearance. But all ’ave a purpose.’ The strength in his voice returned. ‘The difficulty for many is finding what their purpose is. Many travel the wrong path while they search.’
Cal glanced at his companion, knowing his words were for him. His grip about the reins tightened as Brother Mirek lifted one hand and silently acknowledged the guards who stood either side of the open gate, offering a nod as they passed through. Once inside, Cal turned his gaze forward as they followed the single road further into the New Town.
People rushed about, likely finishing chores before the coming night fell, most giving Cal’s cloaked companion a nod or smile, and casting him a cursory glance. A loch sat far to their right and the New Town soon closed in about them. They wandered for a time in silence by the houses on the tofts of land given to the burgesses, each separated by simple wattle fences or gullys or small alleyways that lead to the backlands where the less privileged or less fortunate lived.
Heads continued to turn and conversations ceased momentarily as they passed by, but after a quick inspection of Cal’s unfamiliar face and form and a wave from Brother Mirek, the locals returned to what they’d been about. A pig squealed and scampered out from one of the small vennels separating two of the sturdily built homes further ahead. No one gave chase and the pig soon stopped to rummage beneath a bush before disappearing again. Deeper into the town the scent of roasting meat overtook the ever-present smell of the offerings from the sea.
They veered right for a time before Brother Mirek spoke again. ‘The friary is this way. I will leave you ’ere.’ They turned and faced one another and clasped wrists. ‘It ’as been a pleasure to know you.’
Cal stared at the man of God who had given him guidance and friendship and much to think about in the short time he’d known him. ‘My thanks, Brother Mirek. The pleasure has been mine.’
Before he could withdraw his hand, Brother Mirek placed his other hand on top of Cal’s. ‘The gates and ports in and out of the town are closed at dusk.’ He glanced heavenward as if to remind Cal dusk wasn’t far away. ‘The sea lies to the east and bogs and marshes to the west of the backlands. Godspeed, Callum from the Borders. I ’ope you find your purpose.’ The friar released Cal, turned and after taking two steps, stopped, turned back and said, ‘Follow the road south to the mill. The last cottage on the right will be a good place to start.’ He turned and hurried away.
Thane hadn’t given him any directions to his home and as Cal stood watching the friar hurry away, he could only guess that Thane had spoken of his dying wish to Brother Mirek when he’d made his final confession. But the information regarding the layout of the town and the times the gates were locked caused the fine hairs on the back of his neck to prickle and his senses to sharpen.
Excerpt from The Saint (Highland Brides, book 3). If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Available for purchase: