Home > Highland Dragon Warrior (Dawn of the Highland Dragon #1)

Highland Dragon Warrior (Dawn of the Highland Dragon #1)
Author: Isabel Cooper


One


   1304

   The land didn’t want her there.

   That was nonsense, and she knew it was nonsense. She knew that she was one woman, unarmed and heavily burdened. She knew that there had been no disasters save the weather, and that her more native traveling companions saw nothing unusual or particularly bad in that. She didn’t know whether the land had a consciousness of its own, but she’d never felt anything, whether welcome or hostility, anywhere else she’d been, and it was unlikely now. Sophia knew this.

   And still she looked at the road ahead and the countryside around her—white ground, dark rocks, dead-gray sky overhead—and thought, This place wants me gone.

   She huddled deeper into her cloak and kept walking, following the horses.

   “Not much like France, is it?” asked Bayard, coming up behind her with a genially scornful laugh—whether for his soft companions on the road or the forsaken corner of Scotland they’d come to, Sophia wasn’t sure. “Don’t worry, my ladies. MacAlasdair’s odd, but there’s none can fault his tables, or his hall for warmth.”

   Across the back of the packhorse, Sophia exchanged a look with Alice. Neither could actually read the other’s expression, given the scarves and cloaks concealing their faces, but Sophia would have wagered that Alice’s blond eyebrows were lifted and she was half smiling in a we’ll-see-about-that manner, just as Alice probably knew Sophia was looking carefully neutral. They’d known each other practically since childhood. They’d also both gotten a look at the castle ahead, the one that reached up into the sky like a vast dark hand.

   Hospitable wasn’t the word that came to mind. Warm, maybe, given everything. Sophia could see that. But welcoming? No.

   Worry was pointless. It had been for days, since she and Alice had found Bayard and his company, the one group of traders who were actually going to Loch Arach so early in the year, and had paid probably too much money to join their company. The time for second thoughts might have been even earlier, before they’d sailed to Dover in the first place. Here, there was going forward or there was freezing to death, or perhaps starving. Neither she nor Alice would last long in the wild.

   Sophia ran her hands quickly over the packs on her horse’s back, checking for broken glass or slipped padding, a habit of such long duration that she had to fight to keep it from becoming absentminded. She straightened her spine as they approached the castle, smiled politely at the guard who came out from the gatehouse, and thought, This isn’t the first time I’ve been unwelcome. We live through these things.

   All the same, her stomach was small and huddled, and she felt the smile pulling on her face, too heavy for the muscles there to hold easily. She was suddenly glad of the cold, that her cloak might hide the better part of her face and that her hands might shake without anyone knowing the true reason. And when they’d crossed the drawbridge and the portcullis had descended behind them, she couldn’t help stopping and looking back over her shoulder.

   The sun set early in winter, earlier still in the Highlands, and there was barely any of it to begin with. She saw the light at the mountains’ edge, sullen red against the gathering dark. She tried to remember that she was a scholar and a sensible woman, that she had a purpose, and that the journey would hopefully have a reward.

   She tried very hard not to think about blood.

   * * *

   Inside was better. It shouldn’t have been—now escape would be even more difficult—but the mind didn’t always do the tricks one wished, responding instead to stupid cues like scent and sound. The courtyard of Castle MacAlasdair was darker, colder, and emptier than the streets of Lille or London, but it held stock and people, more of them in one place than Sophia had encountered for weeks. Even the odor of cattle and the shrieking of an angry infant sent subtle waves of reassurance to the base of her mind.

   “Civilization,” said Alice, echoing Sophia’s thoughts. “Such as we’ll get here.”

   “Be kind.”

   “Why? We’re not speaking French or English, and none of them have Hebrew.”

   “It’s certainly good I brought you along,” said Sophia, shaking her head and smiling, “since you know everything.”

   “I know if you’re not inside before I’ve found a place for us, I’ll come drag you in by the ear.”

   “If anything breaks, there’s not as much point in us being here,” said Sophia, retreading the steps of their old and comfortable argument. “And it’ll be harder getting home.”

   “If you freeze to death, of course, that will be much more helpful,” said Alice. She followed Bayard into the great hall while Sophia went to the stables with a few of the other travelers.

   Naturally, she didn’t have the time or space to unpack completely, but she settled her packs as carefully as she could before handing her horse off to one of the men of the castle—like most, a dark, bearded fellow in a draped length of red-and-blue-plaid wool, who watched her with the distant curiosity she’d gotten at a dozen inns and cottages. At first, the scrutiny had made Sophia twitchy. Then she’d gotten used to it. They couldn’t tell anything about her; she looked and dressed like any other woman. They just hadn’t seen anyone new for months.

   She got the same kind of looks as she made her way back across the courtyard. Nobody stopped to stare—they had their duties, and it was cold out—but even in the dying light, she saw a few glances back and forth, and caught unfamiliar words that nonetheless had familiar tones. Who’s that? Oh, she’s with the traders. They’ve just come in. French, I think.

   Gossip was the same everywhere, as far as she could tell, especially gossip in winter. That was another reassurance.

   Within the great hall, the smells were much better, objectively: roast meat and fresh bread, oil from the torches on the walls, and smoke from the fire in the great hearth. Humanity was in there too, but the smell was not nearly as bad as it had been on the ship coming over, or even in some of the inns. The hall was a decent size, and perhaps thirty people sat at the table within, halfway through supper from the look of it.

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