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Stepping Into the Light (Within the Castle Gates Book One)

By Candee Fick

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Prologue

1412 ~ Scottish Highlands
Alone at last, Moira Gunn collapsed onto her knees in the middle of the glade.
Chest heaving from her dash away from the castle, she sat back onto her heels and inhaled the pine-scented air. Today it might take more than her favorite hideaway to restore her peace.
She dried her tears with the edge of the Gunn clan’s woolen plaid draped around her slight frame then studied her surroundings. Ears keen to a rustling in the nearby underbrush, Moira placed a hand over her throat where her breath lodged in fear. Her heart pounded as the peace around her shattered.
A flash of red through the branches confirmed her worst fears moments before Devlin, the captain of Isla’s personal guard, pushed through the undergrowth into the clearing. The laird’s wife insisted on the unique shirt color as proof of their authority, but the deep hue made the ruffians easier to spot throughout the forested countryside…and avoid in times of trouble.
Until today.
“Look who I found outside the castle gates.” Devlin sneered at Moira from a stone’s toss away. “Thought ye could sneak out, did ye?”
Mayhap there was naught to fear but another tongue-lashing. Still, Moira eased from the grass to her feet, prepared to bluff her way out of the danger prickling the back of her neck.
Either that or run.
Except even with scattered thickets and patches of brambles, the stretch of forest between the castle wall and the nearby ravine wouldna hide her for long.
Devlin took a step closer. “Lady Isla sent ye to the kitchens for a reason.”
‘Twas punishment for ruining her gown as they broke their fast that morn, except ‘twasna her fault. Ilsa’s spoiled son Roan had smeared the fruit tart onto Moira’s skirt then stood by with nary a word—though smirking—whilst Moira shouldered the blame.
“But I didna…” Her voice trailed off with resignation. Her father’s new wife never believed her, and lately she’d spent more time away from her family than with them.
“Ye were sent to prepare the meal for yer clan.” Devlin crossed bulging arms across his chest, an angry scowl marring his face.
Moira side-stepped a patch of multicolored flowers to put more distance between them. She might have been happy helping in the kitchens, but the cook had complained she was underfoot and didna belong there.
Didna seem she belonged anywhere.
Especially by her father’s side.
A sob caught in her throat. The whole clan had been abuzz for days with speculation about their laird’s mysterious illness until she simply couldn’t face another moment of the gossip feeding her fears.
What would she do if he died? Who would protect her then?
Members of their clan came to offer their herbal cures and pay their respects to their laird, yet she wasna even allowed to sing for him like she had many times before.
Still, a lass should be allowed to greet her father on her birthday—especially her thirteenth, when she officially moved from bairn to maiden.
She fingered the jeweled brooch hanging from a leather cord around her neck. Her birthday gift three years ago while her mother was still alive.
Today held no gifts, only a heavy cloud.
The verra reason she’d sought the neglected side gate in the curtain wall and slipped away to rail at the injustice her life had become.
When Father Tomas returned from the Sinclair holding she would ask him why good people died. And why God seemed so far away.
A twig snapped in warning.
Too late. Moira had gotten distracted by her musings and dropped her guard.
In three quick steps, Devlin reached her side, and a hand snaked out to wrap around the plaited hair hanging down her back. “Don’t ya ken? It be dangerous for a lass to be alone in the woods.”
Panic coursed through her veins, and she struggled against the tightening grip that anchored her in place. “Let me go. My da will hear of this and—”
“He won’t be causing any more trouble. And neither will ye.” Devlin laughed, his foul breath hot on her face. “And ye won’t be needin’ this anymore.” With a vicious jerk, he ripped away her precious heirloom.
The burning fire around her throat mirrored the agonizing void in her heart. “My mother’s brooch—”
“Not anymore.” He waved his dagger before her eyes. “There’s only room for one pretty lady at this keep.”
Icy dread settled into her stomach at the sight of the sharp blade. “Please. I’m just a lass.” She twisted her head from side to side but couldna break free of his hold on her hair.
Was he here out of some sort of misguided loyalty? Or jealousy on behalf of his mistress?
Heaven help her if he meant to scar her for life.
A brutal yank on her hair sent her spinning. He released her for an instant, but before she could gather her wits, she found herself facing the clearing but trapped against his body, anchored in place by a meaty hand on her forehead.
“Yer the one he’s calling for in his fevered sleep.” His dagger once again danced before her eyes. “All he can say is ‘Mor.’ ”
Her heart ached at the drawn-out—cruel—imitation of a suffering man’s delirium, then stopped as recognition dawned.
“Mor. Mor.” The traitorous guard’s mocking laughter rang out through the clearing as cold metal trailed down her cheek.
Moira’s knees weakened at the sound of her dear mother’s name. The mother who’d died in childbirth followed a few days later by her infant son. Would they all soon be reunited in the hereafter?
“Well, no more.” The blade came to rest beneath her chin.
Lightheaded with fear, her knees buckled and she found herself falling, slipping from his grasp even as the blade pierced her neck, then sliced up the right side of her face with agonizing heat.
Harsh reality silenced her scream. With the knife at her throat, he had truly meant to kill her.
Only God could help her now.
A surge of unexpected strength sent her rolling to her right, then scrambling to her feet before running without direction into the woods. The crashing of feet behind her drove her farther from the safety of home and slightly downhill toward the distant rush of water as she darted one way then the other around trees.
Despite the hand pressed against her face, every step jarred her injury, sending more blood trickling through her fingers and down her arm. Still running, she risked a glance over her shoulder at her assailant. Devlin gained on her, fury twisting his features and the bloody dagger still in his hand.
Oh, dear God above, save me.
Moira ducked down, then rounded a cluster of tall bushes looking for a hiding place. Except she was closer to the ravine than she’d thought and the ground fell away beneath her feet. Pebbles and brush gouged her skin as she tumbled down the steep embankment. Every twist and turn against the rock-strewn wall of the ravine jarred her insides with the force of an axe chopping into a tree trunk. After a final rolling catapult off a large boulder, she landed on her back near the creek. Gasping like a fish on dry land, she lay still and fought to draw air into her lungs.
Above her came a bellow of outrage that reminded her to stay quiet—and motionless—in case Devlin couldna already see her broken body at the bottom of the ravine.
A moment later, the vice-like grip around her chest eased enough for her to breathe again. Just in time for every bruise and scrape acquired during her fall to raise their voices in protest, joining the pulsing agony from her face and neck. Risking detection as Devlin stomped overhead, she lifted weak hands to hold the slashed flesh together, and then bit back a whimper at the renewed throbbing that brought tears to her eyes.
“When I find ye, ye’ll wish ye were already dead.”
Death might be welcome considering the misery of the moment. Then again, her father had always told her to be a brave lass because Gunns never quit.
A deep growl in the brush above her ‘twas followed by a howl that sent chills up her already battered spine. A wolf. Somehow, either Devlin’s actions or the scent of her blood had attracted the animal’s attention.
The guard’s war cry split through the air, and soon the sounds of battle between man and beast faded further away.
Thank Heaven for the distraction—except that the rest of the pack might be nearby.
Moira pushed the remaining dizziness away and eyed a nearby cluster of purple-hued bell heather. A half hour ago she would have relished the simple beauty of the flowering blooms and soaked in the happy twittering of lapwings in the branches overhead.
Now, if she didna wish to die when Devlin returned, she must get away.
She staggered to her feet and stumbled along the creek bed toward the loch. Just…a little…farther. Stepping over tree roots and around scrub brushes, Moira battled to remain upright even as her body weakened from the loss of blood.
From her periphery an elderly man with a wooden cart emerged. And then, she saw nothing at all.

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