Legend of the Mist
© 2006 Vicki Hinze
“A lion in the world, a lamb by his own hearth.”
That’s a Scotsman–the spirit of the man–and the premise for this novel. My intent is neither to depict the modern Scottish political structure nor its royal hierarchy. My intent is to honor the Scotsman.
He’s perceptive, imaginative, and fiercely loyal. He possesses enduring courage and deep pride. He’s also ever-dutiful. To capture the essence of his ideals, of the devotion to family and to country etched in his Scots’ heart, I’ve portrayed the political structure and the role of royals as it was nearly a thousand years ago, for in all of my research, that is how both remain today–in the Scotsman’s heart.
Some remote areas in the Highlands, the harsh and brutal and hauntingly beautiful, uppermost region of Scotland, seem untouched by time. It is one such region visited in Festival. One such region, and one such Scottish heart . . . in spirit.
Laird Harold Cameron lay dead.
His widow, Letty, crossed the ice-crusted ridge and took her proper place. Despite the treacherous weather, the clan helicopter executed a perfect honorary fly-by. Its whirring props beat at the air, droning in her ears and pulsing in her temples. When it disappeared over the ridge into a wall of fog, Letty braced herself then looked down on her beloved Harry’s rain-swept coffin. Pain, sharp and swift, seized her heart. Rainbow spots blinded her eyes. Her head swam, and the ground rushed up to greet her.
Carry me, she prayed. This time she couldn’t walk alone. She shut her eyes and began the litany, seeking solace where so often she had found it in the past.
When she finished and felt brave enough to face what would come, she opened her eyes, but she didn’t dare to glance at the five distinct groups of mourners, or to her side at her grandson, James. Though for different reasons, their haunted expressions would be the same, would only add to her agony.
A tightness spread through her chest. She stiffened against it. Burying her husband of half a century had her feeling every day of her seventy years. Empty. Angry that Harry had left her. And frightened. So very frightened. . . .
To some, her fear alone would have justified killing the Cameron. She couldn’t change that sinful fact, though it did console her to know that no man, no matter how noble or just he deemed his reasons, would openly admit that shameful truth. James had long since seen to that.
A twinge of pride for her sole heir eased the hurtful hold losing Harry held on her heart. Feeling sturdier, she risked a glance at her grandson. His expression as dark as the foul winter sky, he lifted his chin until all she could see was its underside. The freezing rain quickly soaked his beard, darkening it to the color of dried blood. He looked down, worry and fear for her clouding his eyes, then stretched out his hand and dropped a fistful of crushed heather into the hole he’d chiseled into the frozen ground–the gaping hole that now held his grandfather’s coffin.
Her Harry’s coffin.
Oh God! Her love, her best friend, was dead!
Pain speared through her heart. Ice-cold fear crept into her bones. Shivering, she forced her arms to stay at her sides and not to cross her chest in supplication. She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. Not now and not here. Never here.
Her clan, the three neighboring ones, the villagers and James–all would expect her to face this god-awful tragedy with courage and dignity, with spirit. But the sad truth was, her spirit was sorely flagging, and she just didn’t know if she had the strength to pull herself up alone.
It had only been a year–one scant year, for god’s sake–since she’d buried her sole son and his wife. One scant year since she’d watched James lower their coffins into the ground on this same barren ridge.
The old pain joined the new and surged through her chest. How much heartache could one soul bear? How much pain could one small, insignificant woman withstand without losing her mind? It wasn’t right for a woman to outlive her children. It wasn’t . . . right.
The tears in her heart slid up her throat, choking her, burning the backs of her eyes and stinging her nose. She fought them, and looked away.
Buried under nature’s winter wrath, the Highland ridge looked stark, as bleak as the empty eyes of the Cameron mourners. Just like before. But neither empty eyes nor demons from hell could have kept James Cameron from his duties then, and they wouldn’t now. Praise God, James was strong enough to see to his duties no matter how crushing his pain. Steeped in tradition, he had allowed no other man to shovel the sacred earth; he had buried his parents himself. And as Harry’s sole heir and the new Cameron laird, James alone would bury his grandfather. It was fitting. Proper. And, God forgive her for her weakness, it was comforting.
A puffin trilled a mournful tune and James’s knuckles bleached white. She couldn’t bear seeing that. He had loved his grandfather so. Why had Harry had to die? Why?
Squinting against threatening tears and blowing rain, she glanced over at Father MacDuff, the old priest who had become her spiritual advisor and confidant over forty years ago. He too was steeped in tradition, droning on in the old Gaelic language, committing Harry’s soul to God as if this were the twelfth century rather than the twentieth. Aye, there was good in tradition. Familiarity. Safety. Stability. . . .
Her old friend met her gaze. She saw his unease; saw it, and worried that it might be just. Maybe she had lost her grip on reality. Did the insane know the moment insanity struck them? Did they? Or were they filled with doubts, or even blissfully ignorant that they’d slipped over the edge into madness?
The cold fear in her grew stronger, weakening her knees. Shivering, she crossed her chest with her arms and again looked away.
One by one the Camerons stepped forward to drop rose petals on Harry’s coffin. Harry had hated roses. Too many thorns, he’d said. But he had loved their scent . . . her rose water scent. She closed her eyes and again felt Harry nuzzling her neck, growling his pleasure, nipping at her skin as he had fifty years ago. As he had a week ago. She drew in a deep breath, shuttered thoughts that he would never hold her again, then opened her eyes. Since only petals fell, she didn’t stop the Cameron mourners. Her Harry would carry her scent with him through eternity; her scent, and her heart.
Celwyn, the Cameron maid, stepped forward and dropped her yellow petals, her sob lifting her shoulders. She’d wrung her hands in her coat until it had crumpled the fabric. Her sister, Bronwyn, stood stone-faced at Celwyn’s side, giving her the evil eye for being emotional. Letty paused to again thank God James hadn’t married that woman, then looked back at Celwyn. She had loved Harry, too.
A tender hitch knotted in Letty’s chest. Celwyn’s spreading gossip of Cameron affairs in the village had annoyed Letty and, even now, she would be miffed, but to her way of thinking, James’s people needed to know their laird could be gentle. That truth had surprised them, to be sure–probably as much if not more than her own breaking down.
Celwyn glanced up, and Letty saw the worry in her eyes. Heat surged to Letty’s face, and she shifted her feet. Her toes had gone numb and were stinging. A blessed state, being numb, but so elusive in times of tragedy.
She supposed she shouldn’t have tried to explain Catherine Morgan to Celwyn. The lass was just too young. Only with age can a body accept that things go on in this world which defy rational explanation. Only with age comes the presence of mind, and the serenity to accept, all one doesn’t understand.
Harry would’ve understood. Even with his mother’s inferior English blood, he would have understood. Her Harry had been an exceptional, superior man.
The Camerons continued their trek past Harry’s coffin, their footsteps crackling loudly, turning the crusted ice into muddy slush that would freeze again long before nightfall. Staring at the wet pine box littered with red, white, and yellow rose petals, Letty again suffered the lonely ache, the emptiness of losing Harry.
Especially now. Now, when she most needed him to guide her through this terrifying dilemma. Dear, dear Harry. What would he have her do?
She looked up at James. His expression had grown masked. Harry would have her tell James. Their grandson was strong but not, thank God, as ruthless as the first Cameron laird was said to have been over nine hundred years ago: a laird whose name her James shared.
She sighed. Aye, Harry would have her tell James, have her do the one thing she could not do. The risks were too high, and she had too little left to lose.
Celwyn was back in place with the Camerons and again wringing her hands. Letty fought back a sob of regret. Oh, Harry. Talking to her was such a mistake. Yet I’d had to talk to someone. Finding that diary, learning the woman who’d written it had traveled from this time to that of the first Cameron laird, learning she’d become a Cameron ancestor and that I had brought her to Cameron . . . Well, who wouldn’t have been stunned? Who wouldn’t need to talk with someone?
Letty stared at his coffin, mystified. It can’t be true, can it? How could it be true? Shaking, she squeezed her eyes closed to shut out the possibility. I don’t even know a Catherine Morgan. But did you, Harry?
Again Letty searched her mind, drifted back through fifty years of introductions and acquaintances, and again she failed to place any Morgan other than her old friend, Annie. Annie, who had never married and couldn’t possibly have a daughter or a granddaughter named Catherine.
Oh, Harry. What am I to do? What will happen if what the diary claims proves true? What will happen to James, to all Camerons, if this Catherine Morgan shouldn’t come to Cameron? If she shouldn’t go back and become an ancestor?
The same dark fears that had sent Letty reeling the night she’d first found and read the diary threatened her now. Summoning every ounce of courage she could muster, she fought them. There’d been a spectacle that night, but there would not be a spectacle at her Harry’s funeral.
I know the fault for that was mine. Why, oh why, did I claim finding the diary a miracle? If only I’d kept it to myself, then Celwyn wouldn’t have heard it–or repeated it in the village. More importantly, James wouldn’t have heard it. Oh, I know he overreacted in true Cameron tradition. Worrying. And I know it’s my fault he ruined the chapel door with his shoulder. Letty squeezed her eyes shut, then shot Harry’s coffin an apologetic look. But the truth is that the whole ordeal surprised me. Surely you understand that. But I would have calmed down on my own . . . eventually. And if you’d been here with me where you belong instead of in that damn box, then I wouldn’t have had to deal with it alone. So the fault is yours too.
Was it really? Harry hadn’t wanted to die. Letty fidgeted, remorseful. Snow crunched under her feet. I’m sorry, dear. It’s just that this is so hard to fathom, and James. . . . Well, you were right about James. He does need a wife to soothe his soul. I know, you said so at least a thousand times. But I still say that losing a bit of his stubbornness first wouldn’t hurt. He definitely gets that from your side of the family, darling, and it’s such a trial.
She sighed and looked at James from under her lashes. Tenderness welled. Aye, he has a stubborn streak as wide as Kirkland Dam, and a temper as foul and fierce as a Highland winter. Not so fierce as yours. . . . Well, maybe it is as fierce as yours, but the night I found the diary, James was gentle. He cradled me in his arms as if I were as fragile and tender as a spanking new bairn. He’ll make a fine father, if we can ever get him to marry. He’s a proud man, our James, and getting him to recant his vow not to marry won’t be easy. But even if he does, if what that diary says proves true, then him marrying won’t happen unless I do the right thing about this Catherine Morgan business. How could he? Oh God, Harry. What if I make a mistake? What if I–
James touched her arm.
Letty swallowed a gasp and looked around. The Camerons were all back in place. The Kirkland clansmen stepped forward, their heads bare to the stinging rain and icy wind, their laird conspicuously absent.
“Hot-headed and lusty,” Harry had said of the Kirklands fifty years ago. It was true then, and true now. Though their men weren’t as lusty as Cameron men, of course.
She stared at the kilt of the man leading them; the Kirkland’s second. Where was their laird? Why hadn’t he come to Harry’s funeral? How dare he not come to Harry’s funeral.
No matter. Dipping her chin, she dropped her gaze to the crusty ice. No matter. Harry would meet his Maker without the Kirkland just fine. And he’d agree it was Catherine Morgan who mattered now. For James’s sake, Catherine Morgan was all that mattered now.
When the last of the Kirklands returned to their group, Colin Ferguson, the youngest of the four lairds, stepped forward. “My sympathy, Lady Cameron,” he said, then sprinkled a spray of soil over Harry’s coffin.
How like Colin to know Harry loved the land more than what grew in it. Scotland. How Harry had loved Scotland.
Seeing pity in Colin’s eyes, Letty nodded to reassure him all was well, knowing perfectly well it wasn’t. Her Cameron pride intact, she then looked on to the Fergusons passing Harry’s coffin single-file, their looks and expressions mimicking their young laird’s.
The wind gusted and the MacPherson laird stepped forward, his billowing black coat dripping rain, his expression equally sleety. James stepped closer to her, and Letty narrowed her gaze on the big laird. The MacPherson clenched his jaw, glared at her, and then tossed snow onto Harry.
Letty nearly smiled. She didn’t, of course–they were enemies–but she could have. If the MacPherson did anything the least bit kind for any Cameron, Harry would haunt the man–and MacPherson knew it. Yet he had come to bid Harry a final farewell. This time her respectful nod was genuine. Given grudgingly, but genuine.
The laird nodded back, then walked on, no doubt to tell more gossip.
So far he’d done little damage but Letty still stared daggers into his back; it was expected. Some in the village had hotly defended her. They firmly believed living with Harold Cameron could do awful things to a woman’s mind. Others denied she’d been affected at all. To them, being devout as Lady Cameron surely was, she’d never succumb to such a mortal sin as insanity. As if the insane had any choice in the matter! Still others pitied her. Spirited or no, it was clear as day to them that her grief had overcome her God-given sense. Grief had soured her lust for living.
Soured her lust for living? If he’d been in it and not spiriting his way to Heaven, Harry would’ve rolled over in his grave laughing at that one. But if he thought it true, he’d scorch her ears with his lectures on the Scots’s duty to embrace life, on her to follow the traditions he’d held dear.
And though it rankled, she had to admit that, on hearing the gossip, a few of the villagers had preened. The old hag finally had shown her true colors. Hadn’t they warned against her pious lies for years?
Letty glared at the MacPhersons. Thank God those ugly rumors had come from them, the senseless twits, and everyone knew the Camerons had been feuding with the MacPhersons for nine hundred years.
What had started that feud, anyway? Letty cocked her head.
Harry would remember. Harry remembered everything about Cameron history.
But Harry was . . . gone.
A sob rose in her throat. She swallowed it back down. Just a few more minutes and this would be over. She could do it. She could talk with Harry some more, do her duty, follow tradition and hold up for just a few minutes more. Harry would expect–no, Harry would demand her to hold up. She’d given him her word.
A MacPherson clansman strutted by and lifted his nose over Harry’s grave. Letty didn’t dare check to see how James had taken that snub, but still she gripped his arm to keep him in place. There would be no bloodletting brawl at her Harry’s funeral. Afterward would be soon enough for James to box the upstart’s ears.
Behind the clans, the villagers huddled under a sea of black umbrellas, waiting patiently for their turn to parade past Harry’s coffin. They’d come to the funeral knowing the service would be a lengthy one. The old Cameron, they would say, had done too much that required forgiveness; so much that even the devout Lady Cameron’s pleas for his salvation would fall on deaf ears, and Harold Cameron’s soul would be spirited straight to hell.
They were wrong, of course. Letty sniffled. Her Harry was surely already tucked away, safe and snug in heaven, going on about his duties there. But she forgave them. After all, they had been deceived.
The villagers came forward. Letty gave each of them a respectful nod. It was not for the Cameron that they had braved the brutal storm, but for her. She knew that, and she loved them for it. The laird had been feared. But for reasons she’d never fully understood, the villagers and the clan members had given her their love. It was a gift she considered precious. So very precious.
Still she wasn’t naive, or unaware of their pitiful tales. Since Harry’s death, rumors about her had swept through Cameron Village like a life-eating fire, belching dark secrets and family skeletons burned bare-bone clean. They knew that after she’d seen Harry dead she’d locked herself in the chapel for three full days and nights. They knew that James, God love his heart, had allowed no one in the castle to intrude on her grief. And they knew that Celwyn, the young Cameron maid, had sworn hand on the Bible to Father MacDuff that she’d heard Letty screeching her thanks to God for the miracle that would spare her grandson’s life.
Uncertain it was a miracle, Letty squeezed James’s arm. He covered her hand with his, and gave her a gentle pat. She stared at his fingers, blunt and strong and raw from the cold and wind. Yes, Harry would have her tell James about Catherine Morgan’s diary. But whether or not finding that book had been a miracle, Letty couldn’t tell James. He was a Cameron down to the marrow of his bones, and no Cameron would allow Catherine Morgan to endanger her life by going back to the first laird, as the diary said she had. For James’s own safety, Letty couldn’t tell him. Lacing her fingers with his, she looked up at her grandson. For her own selfishness, she couldn’t tell him. She already had buried too many of those she loved. James was all she had left now. She couldn’t lose him, too. Harry was . . . gone.
Dear, dear Harry. God, but she missed him. She swallowed back a sob, stiffened against the gnawing pain, thrust out her chin, then scanned the mourners with their now watchful eyes. So they had come. The defenders, the pitiers, and the MacPhersons had joined the merely curious and the few devoted mourners at Harold Cameron’s funeral. Harry would have expected them. And, though Letty would have preferred that only those who’d loved Harry had come, she understood why the others had felt they must attend his funeral.
They were on a mission.
Each wanted to see for himself whose hushed whispers proved true.
Each wanted to see for himself if Lady Cameron indeed had lost her mind.
Their uncertainty terrified her. Because, truthfully, she herself wasn’t sure.
* * *
I’m watching you, Letty Cameron. Aye, you’ve put on a brave front but, a moment ago, fear shadowed your eyes and it’s bleached your face deathly white. You know everyone sees that you’re struggling, yet you can’t make it go away. You’re wallowing in misery and fear–and I’m savoring every moment of it.
My my, I never imagined such an intense reaction from you. You look so frail and beaten that even the fat, old priest is trembling, fearful his precious Letty will soon join the Cameron in the grave. And you will–if I wish it.
I’ve seen MacDuff’s terror before. The fool trusts everyone. That flaw has made him vulnerable for a long time. Even before he became a priest, when the good Father MacDuff was just plain Gregor Forbes, he was as easy to lead as a lamb to slaughter. Fitting that even his name isn’t of his own choosing, eh? “MacDuff” comes with the collar, Letty. It’s an honorary tribute to his twelfth century predecessor, the first Cameron priest. You didn’t know I knew that, did you?
There’s a lot you don’t realize I know. But what matters is that by whatever name he’s called, this MacDuff should’ve known better than to cross himself–twice no less–when the coroner decreed the Cameron’s death due to natural causes. Of all things. Absurd, eh, Letty? Harold Cameron dying of natural causes?
God, but I hate stupid people. And that coroner is as stupid as MacDuff. I heard MacDuff myself, later that same day atop Kirkland Dam, tell the Kirkland–the Kirkland, for God’s sake–it would take a miracle to keep you alive. And that asinine remark started all the dangerous speculation. Had Harold Cameron died in his sleep without a whimper? Or had he been murdered?
MacDuff will pay for the trouble he’s caused. His loose tongue has put me through hell for a week. His hell will last longer, and be more painful. Aye, that I promise. For now, all’s well that ends well. The old Cameron’s coffin is in the ground, and you, his proud old woman, after burying your son and his wife just a year ago with courage and not a tear, now stand slumped against James, weeping like a wounded child.
I heard you carrying on like a wild woman about that diary you found in the chapel, too. Unfortunately, you made sense only to the demons in your mind. I couldn’t find the damn thing that night, but I’ll find it soon. I must know what in it has affected you so magnificently.
In the meantime, my obstacles are crumbling. Oh, I know I have to be careful, especially of James. The new Cameron laird looks wooden, aye, but he is in pain. Admirable that even devastated, he stands tall and wears his red-and-black-tartan plaid proudly, by God, though it’s rain-soaked and limp. I wonder, Would he love his colors nearly so much if he knew I’d used them to kill his parents?
Amusing that mere water effected their fall, and it will effect his. Then I’ll reclaim everything stolen from me. It’s my destiny, eh, Letty?
Aye, proceeding with my plans will take cunning–the new laird is nobody’s fool–but then, neither am I. I’ve succeeded before, and I will again.
The priest has finally finished. For that, even I give thanks. My danger again has passed. Harold Cameron is dead and buried. Soon you will leave my beloved Scotland for an “extended rest” in America. And the new Cameron will be left alone to suffer his grief. Grief that will blind him, until it’s too late.
Just look at him, Letty. Even the mist rises for the arrogant bastard, enveloping him in a frosty gray shroud. Tis fitting, because he’s at my mercy. He doesn’t yet realize it, of course, but he will. And when the Kirkland is discovered, James’s debt to me will double. You see, I alone will believe him innocent of attacking the Kirkland laird. But then, I alone will know who committed that attack. Clever of me to deliberately confuse everyone, eh?
I should celebrate my mischief. Aye, I should. Here at your Harry’s grave, I’ll whisper the words I’ve wanted to speak for so long: “Beware, James Cameron. Today you’re a mighty laird, but by the end of the next Festival of the Brides, everything you love or value will either be mine, or dead.”
I can’t help but to laugh, Letty. He doesn’t know I’ve made the vow, much less that I can keep it. But I can. I can do anything I wish, and I’ve proven it.
Harold Cameron is dead.
And for the third time, I’ve gotten away with murder.*
(First published as Festival, August 1997, ISBN: 0-7860-0421-5, Pinnacle. At that time, Vicki wrote under the pseudonym, Victoria Barrett. FMI: see the History tab and Behind the Book tab.)