Sisters of Castle Leod: Coffee Pot Book Club Blog Tour
**Finalist in the 2022 American Writing Awards**
Millions are fans of Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander books and television series, but few know that Gabaldon’s fictional Castle Leoch was inspired by a real Scottish castle, Castle Leod. The two sisters who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century were among the most fascinating and talked-about women of their era.
Lady Sibell Mackenzie is a spiritualist, a believer in reincarnation, and a popular author of mystical romances. Petite and proper, she values tradition and duty. Her younger sister Lady Constance, swimming champion and big game hunter, is a statuesque beauty who scandalizes British society with her public displays of Greek-style barefoot dancing. The differences between the sisters escalate into conflict after Sibell inherits their late father’s vast estates and the title 3rd Countess of Cromartie. But it is the birth of Sibell’s daughter that sets in motion a series of bizarre and tragic events, pitting sister against sister and propelling Sibell on a desperate mission to challenge the power of fate.
Sisters of Castle Leod, by award-winning author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard, is the emotionally charged story of two sisters torn apart by jealousy and superstition, and the impossible leap of faith that could finally bring them together.
CASTLE LEOD, STRATHPEFFER, SCOTLAND, JANUARY 1887
The first hint of how far Constance and I were to grow apart came with a visit from the Night Watchman.
No one knows who he was, when exactly he lived, or how he died. And why he continues to haunt our castle. But sightings of the Night Watchman are mentioned in Mackenzie family records going back generations, making him as much a part of Castle Leod as the fifteenth-century tower keep, the dusty bones in the basement dungeon, or the carved marriage stone above the front entry.
My first encounter with him was on a winter’s eve well into my ninth year. Mama had said that if one were lucky enough for a glimpse, it would be at the stroke of midnight when he emerged from behind the old grandfather clock in the Great Hall. But children, unless expressly invited, were not allowed in the grandest of all the five-story castle rooms. Which is why I decided to take Constance with me. Should we be discovered, one of her silly grins would likely soothe Papa’s temper.
Like most four-year-olds, Constance was a sound sleeper, but, on that night, I awakened her without causing Nanny to stir. Both of us were barefoot and wearing only our flannel nightdresses when we tiptoed out of the nursery, closing the door softly behind us. In the hallway, I lit an oil lamp and then, after sneaking past Mama’s bedchamber, we descended the cold stone steps to the first floor and the Great Hall.
In winter, the huge fireplace at the east end, with its black-painted mantel-stone, kept the vast room scarcely warm. At this hour, there were no logs burning in the giant fire basket, only orange and blue embers and the musky odor of smoke from an earlier blaze. We crept past the scarlet wingback chairs, the velvet settees, the round gilt table with its base of white swans, the carved Jacobean chests. Every shadow cast by the flickering lamp in my hand made the somber portraits in the ancestral gallery along the south wall come alive. Suspicious eyes followed us. Stern lips curled into sinister smiles. I warned Constance not to look.
Fine Persian carpets covered the oak flooring of the Great Hall except at the west end, where the pendulum clock stood. There, the floor was bare and drafty, though I hardly noticed as I set the lamp on a small table and reduced the flame. The longcase clock was taller than I remembered and, in the dimness, more intimidating.
Constance pressed against me. “Sibell, I’m cold.”
I held her close, my eyes fixed on the clock’s dial. Four minutes to midnight. “He’ll be here soon.”
We sat cross-legged, about ten feet in front of the clock. Through the lenticle, I saw the brass pendulum swinging back and forth, its steady rhythm somehow ominous.
“I’m cold,” Constance whined again.
“Rub your arms with your hands, like this.” I rubbed my own arms to show her how. She tried, but quickly gave up.
“Can’t we go back?”
“Not if you want to see him.”
“How do you know he’ll come?”
I thought for a moment. “Because my sixth sense tells me so.” That was the explanation Mama always gave for knowing something before it happened. “Please, Constance. Be quiet.”
To the left of the clock, a glass-fronted recess looked out upon the castle parklands. Drenched in the white light of a full moon, they extended westward to the lower slopes of Cnoc Aulaidh and Torr. Before long, I would know every curve of those hillsides, every step through dense forests and along dark streams twisting over ancient rocks. I was born with the Highlands in my blood and my bones. In love with the mystery of it and attuned to the hidden meanings within even the most ordinary things.
But a real ghost was something I’d not yet seen. I had only imagined what the Night Watchman might look like, based mostly on a book in Papa’s library that contained a drawing of a medieval sentry. In my bed at night, when I stared into the darkness, sometimes I pretended he stood before me, protected by plates of armor held together with laces, straps, and hinges, wearing a close-fitting helmet pointed at the top, and holding a winged spear. Now, as the clock’s hand lurched forward and the first bell struck, my heart pounded in anticipation. Would he come, and would he be just like the picture in Papa’s book?
At first, all I saw was a vaporous substance seeping from behind the clock’s mahogany trunk. It might have been only the glimmer of moonlight through the window. But then, slowly, a form took shape, a man in ghostly armor carrying a long spear. Hovering just above the floor, he was nearly transparent, quivering like light through fog. If he was aware of our presence, he did not acknowledge it. Mesmerized, I watched the odd figure turn his head first one way, then the other, like he was looking for someone—or something. And then, the next second, he was gone.
Constance punched me in the arm. “When will we see him?”
I surmised she must be playing with me. Testing me. “He came from behind the clock, just like Mama said.”
“You’re making it up. You always want to be like Mama.”
“You didn’t see him?”
“Papa says there’s no Night Watchman, and this is his castle. Someday, when it’s my castle, I won’t let ghosts live here either.”
Her stubbornness was exasperating. “You can’t tell a ghost what to do. No one can.”
“Then maybe I’ll become a ghost. A scary one,” she said, collapsing into giggles.
“Shh.” I clapped a hand over her mouth. “You’ll wake everyone.”
She squirmed away, scooting out of my reach. “I’ll tell them you were scared.”
I wasn’t. What I’d felt was disappointment. Yes, I’d caught a glimpse of the ghost, but I had hoped for something more. If only he had spoken to me, so I could tell Mama. He’d never said a word to her.
“You were scared, weren’t you?” Constance prodded.
“No, of course not. The Night Watchman isn’t frightening. Not to a Mackenzie. He protects us.”
I had to think. “From our enemies.”
Her expression turned serious. “Nobody wants to hurt us, do they?”
“I don’t think so. But … well, maybe he knows something we don’t.”
Constance slid back over to me. Scrambling to her knees, she planted a wet kiss on my cheek. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
My heart melted like warm chocolate. My little sister sometimes was impossible, but I adored her. I had from the first time I saw her, asleep in Papa’s wooden cradle with the carved wing corners and the inset stars along the rim. I remember thinking about how I would teach her everything I knew. She would never need anyone but me.
And I could hold her close forever.
This title will be available on #KindleUnlimited.
Universal Link: https://books2read.com/u/3RzAJY
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
A former touring musician/songwriter and public relations professional, Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is the author of two Amazon bestsellers: THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, “a compelling historical novel steeped in mystery with strong elements of a medical thriller” (Readers’ Favorite, 5 stars), and TEMPTATION RAG: A NOVEL, a “resonant novel … about the birth and demise of ragtime … luxuriously crafted” (Publishers Weekly). Her books have been finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Arizona Literary Contest; they have received 5-star ratings from Readers” Favorite, Book Readers Appreciation Group, and historical fiction Discovered Diamonds. Elizabeth and her family live near Phoenix, Arizona.
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