Highland Warrior Series, Book 1
A Highland warrior battles to reclaim his birthright in the first of a new series filled with seduction, revenge, and soul-stirring passion…
They call him the Beast—a hardened mercenary whose heart seems as cold as his icy blue gaze. They do not know his true name: Niall Braewick, son of the Laird of Kincaid. It has been years since he escaped into the forest the night his father was murdered. Now he has returned, ablaze with a vengeful hunger. He will gain the MacClaren chief’s trust, gather his clan, and take back his lands. And take the MacClaren’s daughter as well…
Though he pulled her from the river, saving her life, Elspeth has been warned to keep her distance from her father’s hired warrior. He is a barbarian—a shame, as he is far more compelling than the lechers and fools competing for her dowry. Little does she know that, like the castle itself, she is a prize Niall intends to claim…but will he extract blood for blood and possess what is his, or will his enemy’s beautiful, innocent daughter tempt him to forsake his dream of conquest?
“Clear off some space on your keeper shelf for the fabulous BEAST OF CLAN KINCAID! Lily Blackwood is a fantastic new voice in Scottish romance. BEAST OF CLAN KINCAID has everything I love about Scottish romance: a sexy alpha hero bent on revenge, a strong heroine who stands in his way, a gripping story you don’t want to put down, and a beautiful sense of setting that makes you want to jump on a plane and fly to Scotland. Get ready to be carried away!”
— Monica McCarty, New York Times and USA Today author of THE HIGHLAND GUARD SERIES
“Blackwood debuts with a nonstop read, brimming over with wonderful character portrayals and deep emotions. A realistic historical background and a plot fraught with unexpected twists and turns enhance the sensuality. Readers will be eager for the next installment in Blackwood’s original series.”
— RT Bookreviews
“It doesn’t get any better than this lovely historical romance. This book had me captivated from the first page. This emotional story begins a journey of redemption, love and trust for three Highland sons and the remarkable women they fall in love with along the way. If I had to choose just one series in the historical romance genre then this would be my choice for this year. So I recommend it to all and eagerly await the next book.”
— Night Owl Reviews, Top Pick
“The harsh realities of 14th-century life are offset by the raw beauty of the land and the stalwart nature of the people. The protagonists’ intense passion will keep readers riveted.”
— Publishers Weekly
Seventeen years before.
Flames arose outside the castle, reflecting off the stone walls of the tower room and the faces of the warriors crowded there. Some of the men cursed. Others prayed. Most remained silent. The clash of metal echoed in the night, along with the braying of distressed animals and screams.
Twelve-year-old Niall Braewick stood rigid, his hand clenched on the pommel of his sword. Being so young, he had never seen battle, but he was tall and strong for his age and had trained diligently with his weapons master. Tonight he would do whatever necessary to crush those who had betrayed his father’s trust—and through trickery and deception, unleashed an unexpected attack against his clann.
His father, Raghnall, the Laird of Kincaid, turned from the window, his expression grave. Like his Norse ancestors he stood taller than most men and had fair hair—now threaded with silver—that fell to his shoulders. He wore no armor, only the tunic and brat he had worn to the day’s festival, a gathering intended to foster unity with two neighboring clans. Yet once night had fallen, the Kincaid’s invitation of hospitality had been betrayed in the vilest way.
Without warning, the war-chieftains Alwyn and MacClaren—the leaders of two smaller, once-faithful vassal clans to the more powerful Kincaids—had betrayed them, taking advantage of the laird’s recent dispute and fall from favor with the king in Edinburgh, their ultimate goal to seize Kincaid lands.
When the laird spoke, his voice did not waver.
“There is no alternative,” he said. “I must surrender.”
The mere utterance of the word caused Niall’s heart to stop beating. His father and his clan were renowned for their battle prowess. The histories of the Highlands were replete with tales of Kincaid valor, and their ancient and illustrious line often celebrated as the royalty of the north.
Surrender? His heart surged back to life, thudding proud and fierce in his chest.
Voices clamored all around him.
“No, my laird!” shouted the man beside him.
“We will fight—” another roared.
“Let us show the Alwyn and MacClaren clans the road to hell!”
“We can defeat them!” Niall shouted, raising his sword.
Yet Raghnall raised his hand—and all voices hushed.
“Perhaps that is so,” he said, his eyes bright with hate and fire. His gaze met Niall’s for a long searing moment, before sweeping away, over his men. “Perhaps we could defeat them. But not in time to save our clanspeople.”
Their clanspeople. The scores of villagers who had been captured and penned inside a large barn, just within sight of the castle. Old folk. Children. Women and babes. Those who had been unable to get safely from their village of Inverhaven and inside the castle walls before the gates closed. Thankfully Niall’s mother, the Lady Kincaid, was safe inside the stronghold with his brothers, eight-year-old Faelan and five-year-old Cull. However, the wives and children and mothers and fathers of many Kincaid warriors faced certain death if the laird did not comply with his enemies’ demands.
“They are your families,” his father said with a solemn nod. “They are my people.”
His captain, Fionnlagh, a barrel-chested warrior with grizzled red beard and braids, stepped forward and answered quietly. “But you are our laird.”
The Kincaid answered softly, but no less resolutely. “Which is why I must do this.”
Fionnlagh shook his head and implored, palms upward, “But my lord—”
“It is decided,” Raghnall bellowed. His voice echoed off the tower stones.
No one spoke. No one moved. Indeed, Niall felt certain no one dared breathe, including himself. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His father would surrender. Niall’s eyes blurred, stung with tears, but he blinked them away because warriors didn’t cry.
The laird walked the line, pausing to peer into the face of each man. The ancient bronze brooch pinned to his plaid shone in the lamplight. The emerald eye of its wolf glimmered.
“Our clan has possessed these lands for centuries,” he said. “This night will not see the end of the Clan Kincaid.”
“Aye!” answered several men, their heads nodding. “Never.”
“Tha…sinn…Kincaid,” Raghnall said fiercely, turning back to walk before them again.
Niall’s throat tightened, hearing the words. We are Kincaid.
The laird lifted one fist—and pounded it against his chest. “Tha sinn bhràithrean.”
We are brothers.
“Tha sinn seo talamh…”
We are this land.
His father recited the Kincaid vow of fealty—and Niall did as well, his heart swollen with pride.
The men joined in. Their voices unified and grew louder as they repeated ancient words learned from their fathers, who had learned them from their fathers before them.
When they were finished, a long silence held the room … until at last his father nodded to his captain. “Make the signal.”
At the window Fionnlagh unfurled a swath of white linen so that it hung down the outside wall, and he secured it there with a stone.
A loud cheer arose in the night—followed by silence. Then came the rhythmic thunking of swords against wooden shields.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The ominous sound chilled Niall’s blood. He feared, more deeply than he had ever feared anything before, that this night would change the course of his life forever.
Fionnlagh approached the laird, as did several others, and their heads bent in counsel. Niall caught just a few of the words spoken between them.
“…ensure survival … of the clan…”
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“…not much time…”
His father nodded, with a solemn glance toward Niall.
The room became a jumble of movement, with some assisting his father in donning ceremonial garb, while others fastened Niall into an overly large quilted leather jack and strapped a dirk to his hip, and another to his leg. His father touched the Kincaid sword, displayed on its ornate wooden stand, and then nodded, at which time it was folded into a dark cloth and carried away. Fionnlagh brought three tow-headed boys into the room—one of them the captain’s own son, Ian, a friend of Niall’s. The other two boys were younger, and close to Faelan and Cull in age and size.
“Niall,” said Fionnlagh, without meeting Niall’s eyes. “Be a good lad, and give Ian your brooch.”
Ian grinned at that. Of course he did. He did not ken what was happening. Neither did Niall, exactly, but he knew he didn’t like it. Something felt wrong here. Something worse, even, than surrender.
“Why?” He clenched his hand over the circular badge, a hard bump beneath the vest he wore.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“Because you must.” Fionnlagh moved closer, scowling. “Just do it, boy.”
“No,” Niall refused, and stepped back. “I won’t.”
His badge was special because of the emerald in the wolf’s eye, just like his father’s and his brothers’. It identified him as a son of the chief, and a descendant of two centuries of chiefs before him. One didn’t just give that honor away.
Just then his brothers were brought into the room, sleepy-faced and confused, followed by his mother, her face pale with fear. Fionnlagh relieved Faelan and Cull of their brooches. Faelan complained of the loss to his mother. Young Cull was more interested in the warriors and their weapons. Niall watched as the badges were pinned on the other two boys who had been brought in moments before. Boys very similar to his brothers in age and appearance.
Now he understood. Ian was to take his place in the surrender. Ian would pretend to be him.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“Come, Niall,” Fionnlagh urged sharply, his eyes intent beneath profuse eyebrows. “We haven’t much time, now.”
“No,” Niall shouted, backing away. “I won’t do it.”
“You will,” a deeper voice said, from behind. The Kincaid’s shadow fell across Niall. “Because I command you to do so.”
Large, calloused hands turned him by the shoulders and worked the badge from beneath his jack and his hand.
“I want to stay with you,” Niall insisted, heartsick, feeling already half-torn away from everything he loved.
His father handed the badge to Fionnlagh. “You’ll return when it’s safe.”
“In the morning?” he asked hopefully.
“Let us hope for that.” The laird chuckled, deep in his throat, and looked at him long and hard. “But more likely, I’ll be in the Alwyn’s dungeon for a time. Not long, I vow.” He nodded. “The courts will intervene and justice will be done. All will be as it should.”
He rubbed his hand over Niall’s head, ruffling his hair. The fear that banded Niall’s heart loosened a fraction, because if his father smiled … then everything would be all right. Wouldn’t it? He wanted that reassurance more than anything.
Raghnall squeezed his shoulder. “For now you must go with Deargh and keep your brothers safe.”
He nodded toward a hulking, red-headed warrior who stood nearby—the same man he had chosen to train Niall in the skills of sword fighting and combat. Niall had known Deargh his whole life and held him in the highest respect.
Even so, his heart still vehemently rejected the idea of leaving. But he could not defy his father. He could not be anything less than dutiful and brave for a man he loved so deeply.
“Yes, laird,” he answered, his voice thick.
“Go then.” The Kincaid urged him in Deargh’s direction.
Everything happened too fast. Deargh took hold of his arm and led him toward the door—
“My boy—” said a woman’s voice. A blur of blue came from the corner of his eye, and soft arms came round him, squeezing him tight. The familiar scent of rosewater filled his nostrils.
“Mother!” He groaned, embarrassed to be treated like a child in front of the men.
But no one called out teasing words. Indeed, when Niall glanced over his shoulder he saw the smile had dropped from his father’s lips, and that sadness filled his eyes. For that reason he did not squirm free when his mother kissed his forehead and clung to him a moment more before Deargh gently pried him away and led him toward the threshold, her tears still wet on his cheek. His brothers, after being kissed and cried over as well, followed him, nudged along by three more men who remained close behind.
Thunk. Thunk. Thu—
As they moved toward the center of the stronghold, stone walls silenced the sound.
With his brothers following close behind, Niall followed Deargh from the room and down the stairs, into the great hall that was crowded with clanspeople, around corners, through a heavy door, and down empty, narrower stairs into the shadows below the castle where he had never been allowed to explore. The air was colder here and he shivered, his nostrils filled with the scent of damp and earth. He glimpsed the dark cavern of a dungeon and a storeroom crowded with barrels, heaps of root vegetables and rows of earthenware crocks.
Perhaps … perhaps he had misunderstood and they would wait here until his father summoned them, when all was safe … hopefully, yes—hopefully tomorrow morning. That wouldn’t be so bad. It wouldn’t be like leaving.
However Deargh searched the floor, kicking aside dirt and small stones and rushes to reveal a narrow indention, which he grasped and pulled, revealing a wooden panel that had been obscured and beneath it, a black hole of nothingness, the edge of which he sat upon.
He looked at Niall. “Follow me down.”
Shoving off, he disappeared inside.
Niall did follow. They all did, only to be committed to true darkness when the last warrior did not join them, but instead, dropped the panel back into place. From above there came the sound of stones and dirt being returned into place so as to conceal their path of flight.
Niall’s heartbeat increased. He was truly leaving his home. His mother and father. He didn’t want to.
“All of you, follow me, now,” Deargh’s voice uttered from the dark. “You can’t get lost, because there’s only one way to go.”
“I’m afraid,” whispered Cull, pressing close against Niall’s side.
Any other time he would have teased the little boy and told him to be a man, that real warriors didn’t feel fear. Yet he too was afraid, so how could he tell the little boy not to be?
“Hold on to me,” he answered, grasping his brother’s small hand.
Sightless, Niall could only clench his teeth on his own apprehension and shuffle along the narrow crevice in the stone for what seemed an eternity, with Cull’s face burrowed into his side, until at last their leader stopped and grunted, and with a fierce shove led them toward light. But only the faintest light, for they emerged just outside the castle through a concealed portal much like the first, onto a stony, uneven piece of ground enshrouded by mist. If his bearings were correct, they stood outside the northern wall.
“Wot was ’at?” said a voice in the darkness.
Deargh raised his hand and pressed a finger to his lips. Niall tensed, listening, and held tight to Cull.
“I dinna hear nothing,” answered a gravelly voice.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
The sound reverberated in the night, but duller and quieter on this side of the stone walls. Niall closed his eyes, and adjusted his grip on his sword, prepared to kill to protect his brothers if need be.
Suddenly a fervent clamor arose, voices shouting. The sound could only mean one thing. His father had emerged from the castle. The laird of Kincaid had made good on his intention to surrender.
Niall felt dizzied and sick.
A rush of footsteps sounded nearby, leather crunching on stone.
In the darkness, a voice said, “We doona want to miss this, lads.”
“The fearsome Kincaid isn’t so fearsome now, is he?” called another.
“The MacClaren will bring him to his knees.”
The group of them laughed, their footsteps growing distant.
Niall exhaled through his nose, outraged. How dare those men laugh at his father, who had always been honorable and just in his dealings with all clans? How dare they set their filthy MacClaren feet on Kincaid lands. Hate twisted up from deep inside him and he lunged, sword raised—
Only to be snatched back, Deargh’s hand in the neck of his vest.
“I’ll kill them!” Niall hissed, struggling to be free. “All of them.”
Faelan leapt forward. “Give me a sword. I’ll help you!”
“Me as well!” said Cull, swooping out from under Deargh’s arm.
“Quiet, all of you,” the man growled, jerking Niall in place, as his companion warriors seized hold of his brothers. “We shall face them when the moment is right.”
Deargh dragged him in the opposite direction, down the craggy incline until they and the others entered the forest. Over his shoulder, Niall peered up the hillside where wane moonlight illuminated the stone tower, above a swath of mist. An Caisteal Niaul … the castle in the clouds. His father had said he would return home soon, so why did this feel like good-bye? His brothers crowded close to his side.
“It’s cold. I want to go back to the castle,” said Cull, yanking on his sleeve.
“We will,” Niall answered firmly.
“When?” the little boy pressed.
“Soon,” he answered, but part of him doubted the words.
“I don’t believe you,” Faelan blurted, his face white in the night. “We’re never going back.”
“Never going back?” exclaimed Cull, halting, his eyes wide.
“That’s not true—” Niall retorted, startled by the magnitude of fear that barreled up inside him at hearing the words spoken aloud.
“It is true, and you know it.” Faelan glared back at him, stricken. “Why else would Mother have cried—?”
“Silence, all of you,” commanded Deargh, suddenly standing amidst them, his large hands gripping their shoulders. “Do not speak again until I say otherwise. It is time for you to be men now, not boys. You must make your laird and lady mother proud. Do you understand?”
For so long Niall had wanted nothing more than to be a man, full grown. Now, he just wanted to be a boy, returned to his home. To his family. But they were all in danger now, and he must set an example for his brothers.
“Aye,” he responded. “We do.”
He strode past Deargh. His brothers followed in silence.
They walked for what seemed an age, venturing deeper and deeper into the forest, over stones and fallen, lichen-covered trunks. The air grew colder, and Niall drew his woolen plaid closer around his arms and shoulders, and helped Cull do the same as well, while Faelan scowled and refused any brotherly care. At last, Deargh signaled that they should stop. In the darkness, Niall perceived a half wall of stones, the remnants of an ancient structure.
“Rest,” said Deargh, who stood watchfully, staring into the forest as did the other men, their hands never leaving their weapons.
Niall, however, could stand no longer. Och! How his legs ached, and his lungs burned. He slid down, his back against the wall. Cull slumped next to him, and within a few moments snored softly against his shoulder. On the other side, Faelan held himself apart, but over time inched closer until at last Niall grabbed the sleeve of his tunic and pulled him under his arm.
“We’ll be warmer this way,” he explained gruffly.
Faelan nodded. Soon he dozed as well.
Niall did not sleep. He missed his father and his mother. He missed his hound and his warm, soft bed. He stared into the mist, his heart tight and heavy, and wondered what had befallen his parents and his kinsmen.
A sound came from the trees. A rustle … and crack of wood.
The hair on the back of Niall’s neck stood on end. The warriors silently drew their weapons. Niall shrugged out from between his brothers and stood, drawing his sword as well—
A figure hurtled out from the trees, stumbling to a halt before Deargh.
Niall recognized Angus, one of his father’s men. Dark stains marred his hair, face and neck, and his yellow tunic. Stains Niall knew to be blood. He carried no weapon.
“Go,” he said, gasping for breath. “Now. They are coming. They must not find you.”
“What of our laird?” demanded Deargh.
“Our laird … is murdered.” With a hand to Deargh’s shoulder, Angus shoved past him and staggered, falling on his knees in front of Niall.
“Take … this.” He pressed something circular and hard into his hands. “It is yours now.”
Niall did not have to look down to know he held his father’s brooch. His entire body went numb. Frozen. Through the fog clouding his mind, he heard the man speak again.
“You must survive. When you are grown, return. Avenge … the treachery done to your father. Your mother. Your clansmen. Avenge them all.”
Those words. He did not want to hear them. His father dead? His … mother? It couldn’t be true. His thoughts shattered. His mind couldn’t comprehend.
A sound echoed through the small clearing … the sound of war drums and voices calling to one another.
Deargh looked to the other warriors. “You know what to do.”
“Let us hurry.”
“God bless and protect you all.”
Deargh strode toward Niall. Seizing his arm, he dragged him toward the trees. Over his shoulder, Niall saw one of their protectors carrying Cull away, still sleeping, in the opposite direction. The third pulled Faelan into the shadows, as if to go elsewhere, toward the mountains—
Faelan called, “Niall—!”
The cry was cut off as if silenced by a hand.
“Don’t answer,” Deargh ordered. “They’ll hear.”
“My brothers,” Niall gasped.
“We are safer apart.” Deargh gripped the shoulders of his jack, his eyes wide and furious. “This way, if God wishes it, at least one of you may survive to see the morning. Tell me, boy, do you want to live or die?”
The drums grew closer. In his mind’s eye he saw his father’s face, intent and wise, looking back at him and he knew what he must do.
“I want to live,” he answered.
* * * * *
Hours later as dawn broke across the distant sky, Niall sat on the narrow ledge of a stony hillside, wet and numb, his woolen brat wrapped around him like a shroud. At last, the rain had ceased. Deargh hunted nearby, having left him to attempt a small fire.
But he hadn’t. Not yet. Instead, Niall stared at the brooch in his hand, and beneath it, his palm stained with his father’s blood. For most of the night as they fled on foot, grief had tangled his thoughts, and the fear of not knowing his brothers’ fate. Had he lost them as well as his parents?
Now, he sat still and quiet. A cold northern wind swept around him, tugging at his cowl, and filling his nostrils with the scent of rain and earth. His heartbeat, at last slowed, and his thoughts flowed crystal clear.
Lifting his head, he peered across the valley. There, in the distance, a stone tower emerged from the mist.
One day he would return. One day, he would have his vengeance.
His lips parted. “Tha…sinn…Kincaid.”