Home > Year One (Chronicles of The One #1)

Year One (Chronicles of The One #1)
Author: Nora Roberts

CHAPTER ONE

— Dumfries, Scotland —

When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he’d killed himself. And billions of others.

On a cold, damp day, the last day of what would be his last year, he hunted with his brother and cousin, walking the crackling, frosted field under skies of washed-out, winter blue. He felt healthy and fit, a man of sixty-four who hit the gym three times a week, and had a passion for golf (reflected in a handicap of nine).

With his twin brother, Rob, he’d built—and continued to run—a successful marketing firm based in New York and London. His wife of thirty-nine years, along with Rob’s and their cousin Hugh’s wives, stayed back, tucked into the charming old farmhouse.

With fires snapping in stone hearths, the kettle always on the boil, the women chose to cook and bake and fuss over the coming New Year’s Eve party.

They happily passed on tromping the fields in their wellies.

The MacLeod farm, passed from father to son for more than two hundred years, spread for more than eighty hectares. Hugh loved it nearly as much as he did his wife, children, and grandchildren. From the field they crossed, distant hills rose in the east. And not that far a cry to the west rolled the Irish Sea.

The brothers and their families often traveled together, but this annual trip to the farm remained a highlight for all. As boys they’d often spent a month in the summer on the farm, running across the fields with Hugh and his brother, Duncan—dead now from the soldier’s life he’d chosen. Ross and Rob, the city boys, had always thrown themselves into the farm chores assigned by their Uncle Jamie and Aunt Bess.

They’d learned to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, and to gather eggs. They’d roamed, forests and fields, on foot and on horseback.

Often, on dark nights, they’d crept out of the house to hike to the very field they walked now, to hold secret meetings and try to raise the spirits within the little stone circle the locals called sgiath de solas, shield of light.

They’d never succeeded, nor had they ever chased down the haints or faeries young boys knew traveled the forests. Though on one midnight adventure, when even the air held its breath, Ross swore he’d felt a dark presence, heard its rustling wings, even smelled its foul breath.

Felt—he would always claim—that breath blow into him.

In adolescent panic, he’d stumbled in his rush to flee the circle, and scraped the heel of his hand on a stone within.

A single drop of his blood struck the ground.

As grown men, they still laughed and teased over that long-ago night, and treasured the memories.

And as grown men, they had brought their wives, then their children, back to the farm on an annual pilgrimage beginning on Boxing Day and ending on the second of January.

Their sons and their sons’ wives had left only that morning for London, where they would all see in the New Year with friends—and spend another few days on business. Only Ross’s daughter, Katie, who was seven months along with twins of her own, had stayed back in New York.

She planned a welcome-home dinner for her parents that was never to be.

But on that bracing last day of the year, Ross MacLeod felt as fit and joyful as the boy he’d been. He wondered at the quick shiver down his spine, at the crows circling and calling over the stone circle. But even as he shook it away, the cock pheasant, a flurry of color against the pale sky, rose in flight.

He lifted the twelve-gauge his uncle had given him for his sixteenth birthday, followed the bird’s flight.

It might be that the heel of the hand he’d scraped more than fifty years before stung for an instant, throbbed an instant more.

But still …

He pulled the trigger.

When the shot blasted the air, the crows screamed, but didn’t scatter. Instead, one broke away as if to snatch the kill. One of the men laughed as the darting black bird collided with the falling pheasant.

The dead bird struck the center of the stone circle. Its blood smeared over the frosted ground.

Rob clamped a hand on Ross’s shoulder, and the three men grinned as one of Hugh’s cheerful Labs raced off to retrieve the bird. “Did you see that crazy crow?”

Shaking his head, Ross laughed again. “He won’t be having pheasant for dinner.”

“But we will,” Hugh said. “That’s three for each, enough for a feast.”

The men gathered their birds, and Rob pulled a selfie stick out of his pocket.

“Always prepared.”

So they posed—three men with cheeks ruddy from the cold, all with eyes a sparkling MacLeod blue—before making the pleasant hike back to the farmhouse.

Behind them, the bird’s blood, as if heated by flame, soaked through the frozen ground. And pulsed as the shield thinned, cracked.

They trooped, successful hunters, past fields of winter barley stirring in the light wind, and sheep grazing on a hillock. One of the cows Hugh kept for fattening and finishing lowed lazily.

As they walked, Ross, a contented man, thought himself blessed to end one year and start another on the farm with those he loved.

Smoke puffed from the chimneys in the sturdy stone house. As they approached, the dogs—their workday done—raced ahead to wrestle and play. The men, knowing the ropes, veered off toward a small shed.

Hugh’s Millie, a farmer’s wife and a farmer’s daughter, drew a hard line at cleaning game. So on a bench Hugh had built for that purpose, they set up to do the job themselves.

They talked idly—of the hunt, of the meal to come—as Ross took a pair of the sharp sheers to cut the wings off the pheasant. He cleaned it as his uncle had taught him, cutting close to the body. There were parts that would be used for soup, and those went into a thick plastic bag for the kitchen. Other parts into another bag for disposal.

Rob lifted a severed head, made squawking sounds. Despite himself, Ross laughed, glancing over. He nicked his thumb on a broken bone.

He muttered, “Shit,” and used his index finger to staunch the trickle of blood.

“You know to watch for that,” Hugh said with a tsk.

“Yeah, yeah. Blame it on goofball here.” As he peeled back the skin, the bird’s blood mixed with his.

Once the job was done, they washed the cleaned birds in icy water pumped from the well, then carried them into the house through the kitchen.

The women were gathered in the big farm kitchen with air rich from the scents of baking and warmth from the fire simmering in the hearth.

It all struck Ross as so homey—a perfect tableau—it tugged at his heart. He laid his birds on the wide kitchen counter and grabbed his wife in a circling hug that made her laugh.

“The return of the hunters.” Angie gave him a quick, smacking kiss.

Hugh’s Millie, her curly red mop bundled on top of her head, gave the pile of birds an approving nod. “Enough to roast for our feast and more to serve at the party. How about we do some pheasant and walnut pasties there. You’re fond of them, I recall, Robbie.”

He grinned, patting the belly that pudged over his belt. “Maybe I need to go out and bag a few more so there’ll be some for everyone else.”

Rob’s wife, Jayne, drilled a finger into his belly. “Since you’re going to make a pig of yourself, we’re going to put you to work.”

“That we are,” Millie agreed. “Hugh, you and the lads haul out the long table into the big parlor for the party, and use my mother’s long lace cloth. I want the good candlestands on it as well. And get the extra chairs from the closet and set them out.”

“Wherever we set them, you’ll want them moved again.”

“Then you’d best get started.” Millie eyed the birds, rubbing her hands together. “All right, ladies, let’s boot the men along and get started ourselves.”

They had their feast, a happy family group, roasted wild pheasant seasoned with tarragon, stuffed with oranges, apples, shallots, and sage, cooked on a bed of carrots and potatoes, tomatoes. Peas and good brown bread from the oven, farm butter.

Good friends, old friends as well as family, they enjoyed the last meal of the year with two bottles of the Cristal that Ross and Angie had brought from New York just for this occasion.

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