To read an interview with Lily Baldwin, please see the October issue of Uncaged Book Reviews.
In Alexander MacKenzie’s youth, his clan prospered. Until one night fire and death descended, and all that was good and green fled the ensuing darkness, leaving the MacKenzie clan impoverished, and Alex’s face severely scarred.
Known as the Mad Maid of Clan Ross, Cora has been imprisoned within her father’s keep for a decade, but not against her will—she is her own warden. Cora locked herself away to protect those she loves from what she has become. Within the shadows that blanket their land lurk vampires and wolves. They know Cora’s savage secret and have laid claim to her body. But the fight for her soul has only just begun, and only Alex’s love can save her.
“Look, Alexander, isn’t she beautiful?”
Alex dared not blink as he stared wide-eyed across the sand swept shore at the mermaid sunning herself upon a rock. Ropes of gleaming red hair fanned out across the gray stone, and round, bare breasts pointed toward the sky as if to touch the sun. Her tail grazed the water, skimming the surface, and splashing in lazy circles.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life,” Alex said in a breathless voice. His mother chuckled, grabbed his waist from behind, and pulled him onto her knee, releasing a muffled groan. “Ye’re getting far too big for me to hold. Either that or I’m getting smaller.”
He could not contain his laughter.
“Wheest,” she said. “Ye’ll frighten her for sure. Mermaids do not wish to be seen by humans.”
“Like the faeries?” he reached out a finger to trace the mermaid’s outline in the air.
“Aye, just like the faeries.”
Alex slid off his mother’s lap onto the rock beside her and rested his head on her shoulder. At age ten, he may have been too big to cradle, but he still sought the warmth of her embrace.
A pleasing lethargy spread through his limbs as he continued to watch the magical creature revel in sunshine. While her tail gently slapped the water’s surface, she stretched her arms, then laced her fingers behind her head. He did the same, smiling up at his mum with satisfaction. But then a soft humming caused him to jolt upright. Over the pounding of his heart, the music floated like a fragrant breeze from the mermaid’s parted lips to his ears. The sound was so beautiful, too beautiful. He had to swallow hard against the ache that gripped his heart.
Unable to breath, he grabbed his mother’s hand. “I think my heart is breaking.”
She touched his face and whispered, “Mine too.” Relief invited his lungs to fill as he snuggled closer to his mum before once more turning back to stare at the fae. Under his breath he prayed for time to stop, but as the sun began to dip in the sky, slicing the cobalt sea with streaks of pink and gold, a distant voice shattered the serenity.
Before Alex could draw his next breath, the mermaid jerked upright, flashed her black eyes in their direction, then dove off the rock, disappearing beneath dappled waves.
Tears made his eyes heavy. He turned and hid his wet cheeks against his mother’s tunic.
“’Tis a blessing to have seen her at all,” Anna crooned while she rubbed a soothing hand down his back. “Now, promise me something.” She crooked her finger beneath his chin.
“Anything,” he said, savoring the warmth in his mother’s mixed-matched eyes. One was green and the other blue—a trait he had inherited.
“’Tis important ye don’t pray to see another mermaid. Instead, pray the sea remains blue and the waves gentle so merfolk will in turn bless our shores just as faeries bless our forests.” She looked up then and waved at John, the castle steward who again had called her name. “Now then, let us see what all the fuss is about.”
~ * ~
Alex cracked open the heavy stable door and peered inside. The air was thick with dust, kicked up by the famed MacKenzie horses. When the sun shone overhead there were few places he would rather be, but when darkness settled over the land, and torches within the barn cast dancing shadows across the ceiling, he always felt uneasy. His imagination tricked his mind into thinking the horses’ snorts and stomps, which suddenly seemed louder than in the daytime, belonged to terrific monsters who prowled the stalls, awaiting the witching hour when the night belonged to the damned.
He stepped inside, looking left then right to make sure nothing lurked in the shadows before calling out, “Mum? Are ye in here?”
“Over here.” Her reply came from deep inside. Instantly, the beautiful, serene sound of Anna’s voice chased away the demons, and he expelled the breath he had not realized he’d been holding. Without fear now he wove his way through the vast stalls that housed the animals he loved so well. The large chargers were his father’s pride, and the life source of their clan.
For generations, the MacKenzies had bred the finest horses in the Highlands. Whether one was in need of a gentle gelding, a palfrey, a work horse, or a charger, their horses were sought after all the way to Edinburgh and beyond. The MacKenzies prospered. His father, Callum, laird of their clan, had often told Alex that they lived in a golden age where forces of good kept dark shadows at bay. “Although it will not always be thus,” his father once warned. “For fate is ever changing as the tides. One day darkness will rise, and all that was once good and green will fade to shadow.”
Alex shook off the troubled thoughts and stopped in front of Arthur, a giant, black charger with honey colored eyes. He favored Arthur above the other fine steeds, although he still had yet to ride him. His father said that a boy of ten years had no business riding so large a horse. Lowering his head over the gate, the stallion nudged Alex’s cheek with its muzzle. “Soon,” he promised, earning a nicker in response. He scratched behind Arthur’s bristling ears before turning away to follow the sound of his mother’s soft voice.
He knew she was talking to the new horse the stable master had brought home, having found it wandering the moors. Wild and fierce, she was a large mare, pure white in color, and unbroken. The steward had chased away the mermaid earlier that evening, bringing word of the mare’s arrival. Anna had a way with animals. Many even said she had a gift, especially with horses. Following the evening meal, when Alex had gone in search of his mother, and could not find her anywhere in the keep, he had known she would be in the stables. Turning a corner, he spotted her long, black hair shimmering in the torchlight.
The new arrival snorted and bucked its hind legs against the tall walls of its confinement.
“Be careful,” he said, rushing forward when his mother opened the stall door.
“Hush,” she said in a soft voice, extending a placating hand in his direction. “’Tis important to invite peace into your voice and into your body when ye’re near an animal that is afraid.”
He slowed his step and exhaled a long breath, trying to mimic his mother’s easy stance.
“Come,” she said. “Imagine ye’re a breeze, soft and gentle.”
He eyed the white mare. She snorted, stretching her neck long, and stomped her hooves when he drew closer.
“I am a breeze,” he said, trembling. He closed his eyes and imagined himself drifting over the moors, teasing the grasses and heather. With his eyes still shut he took another step. “I bring only peace,” he whispered.
A hand closed around his, and he opened his eyes to see his mother’s smiling face. She winked at him and eased toward the wild mare that danced and skittered about; however, this time, it did not rise up or snort.
“Ye’re a soft lass,” she said in a hushed tone. “I can tell. I see it in your eyes.” She slowly reached toward the mare. “All living creatures desire love and respect.” She glanced down at him. “In order to provide both, ye need only one thing—faith.
“Watch.” She let go of his hand and stepped forward. The mare snorted, causing his heart to speed up.
“Mum?” he croaked, his legs threatening to give way. Still, her hand inched closer. Again the horse snorted.
“Ye’re a soft lass,” she crooned, as if she soothing away one of Alex’s nightmares, instead of trying to pacify a feral horse that could kill her with one well-placed kick. He covered his eyes with his hands when she stepped even closer. His heart pounded his ears. When silence followed, he made a V between two of his fingers and peeked to see her fingertips brush the spot between the horse’s dark eyes. She traced a line from its forehead down to its muzzle, then stepped back, keeping her head bowed. He removed his hands from his eyes and waited, although he knew not for what. Then the horse stepped forward and pushed its nose against his mother’s cheek. Anna laughed and began stroking the mare’s mane.
“Ye see, Alex. Love, respect, and faith—that is what ye must hold in your heart. And if ye do, ye’ll count the beasts of the earth as friends. Come now. ‘Tis your turn.”
The gale inside of him had calmed once more. He eased forward, and with love in his heart, reached out his hand. The horse remained still just as it had for his mother, and he stroked her nose. Her eyes shifted to his for an instant. Then Alex stepped back. This time the horse did not hesitate, but instead, she nickered and nudged Alex playfully. He laughed and wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist.
“I love ye,” he said, looking up into her mix-matched eyes.
She smiled down at him. “I love ye.” She led him out of the mare’s stall and closed the tall gate, lowering the lock into place.
“What shall we name her?” he asked.
“Whatever ye wish to—” His mother froze. She grabbed his arm. He winced from the pressure.
“Quiet,” she hissed, her attention on the door.
He strained his ears. A wolf’s howl rang out. He jumped in the same instant his mother said in a whisper, “Wolves.”
The mare snorted and kicked at the stall.
His mother seized his arm and swung him around to face her. “Run.”
Another howl filled the air, and she jerked her head in the direction of the sound. She looked back at him.
Fear brought the sting of tears to his eyes. “Mum—”
“Nay,” she cut him off with a kiss to his lips. “Run.” She shoved him toward the door before turning to release the mare.
Twisting his fingers, he jerked around in circles, gaping at the rows of horses snorting and wildly bucking their gates. “Run,” his mother screamed.
He stumbled backwards, then turned and bolted. He raced back the way he’d come, catching Arthur’s eye. The stallion’s powerful legs thundered against the barn wall, knocking a sconce free. The torch fell to the ground. Dry straw blazed. The fire raced ahead of him. Alex faltered. Smoke roiled upward in ribbons. He clutched his arms around himself, searching for a path through the blaze. The horses snorted. Wolves howled.
The smoke blew across him. “Mum,” he choked out the word. Blindly, he raced past a stall as the horse within kicked through the gate and shot past him. Wood splintered with a thundering crack and flames rose high, surrounding him. Fire lashed across the soft flesh of his cheek. He screamed in pain. The smell of burnt flesh filled his nostrils. Alex gagged. He drew in a smoke filled breath, then wheezed a painful cough. Panic tightened his throat. He couldn’t breathe. The blurry expanse of the door appeared ahead. He had to get out. His lungs screamed for air.
Leaping through the flames, he threw himself against the stable doors and stumbled into the night. He collapsed to the ground, wriggling and screaming while fire continued to devour his flesh.
“Hold still, lad.” He glimpsed his father’s anguished eyes the instant before a blanket covered his body and hands patted out the flames. Then the blanket was whisked away.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Inside,” he gulped out, but the night air bit at his exposed, charred flesh. Jolts of hellish pain shot through him. He seized, unable to breathe. Then the world slowly turned black.
Uncaged Review: This book took me a bit by surprise – taking two of my favorite genres, historical and paranormal and combine them into a story that works. Scarred by a fire in his youth, when the Darkness took over their world, Alex becomes the true laird of his clan when his father passes. With barely being able to keep his people fed, as the faefolk have left the lands, and the Darkness has spoiled the land for crops, he rides out to a neighboring clan with the hope to form an alliance to fight the dark wolves of the forest. The only thing that Clan Ross will accept, is if Alex marries the laird’s strange acting daughter – who hides away in her rooms high in the castle, Cora. But Cora is more than she seems..
This is a very engaging story, and I enjoyed the originality and I really hope the author keeps this story going, as there is much more that could easily be told and secrets left to be uncovered. I did feel the story line was a bit rushed in places, and drawn out in others, but the story is worth a read if you want something a bit different than the standard paranormal fare. Reviewed by Cyrene