Highland Warrior Series, Book 3
The stunning and dramatic final book in the Kincaid brothers’ trilogy set in the wilds of Scotland.
LOVE TAKES NO PRISONERS
Derryth MacClaren is on the run—having been sent from her castle home to avoid capture by the vicious nobleman known as the Wolf, who has vowed revenge against the Clan Kincaid. When a surprise attack leaves her vulnerable, Derryth ends up in the hands of an enemy warrior who claims her, with the Wolf’s blessing, as his prize. But her captor’s gentle words and touch seduce her heart—and body—completely. . . and when she discovers the tattoo on his arm that proves him to be the legendary, long-believed dead son of the murdered Laird of Kincaid, Derryth knows she must find a way to alter his fate—and her own. . .
Cull has no memory of his family or past—all he knows is the life of a warrior, trained to fight on behalf of the Scottish king. But now that Derryth has informed him of who he really is—Cullen Braewick, the youngest son of the slain laird—he is torn. If Cull exacts revenge against the Wolf, who executed his father, he stands to lose the precious lass who he has come to love. What is he willing to sacrifice for Derryth to keep her safe. . .and in his arms?
The Warrior of Clan Kincaid by Lily Blackwood is not one to miss!
An Caisteal Niaul, Inverhaven, March 1390
It was after midnight. Cold and raining.
“Doesn’t it matter at all that I don’t want to be sent away?” Derryth MacClaren sat atop her mount, gripping the reins in her mitten-covered hands, her chest tight with fear and dread.
Just moments ago, it seemed, she had been warm and asleep in her bed. The next she’d been hoisted by a Kincaid warrior into her saddle, as rain pattered on the stones all around. There was a wagon … and a group of Kincaid men gathered nearby, speaking quietly. They wore dark hoods and furs, with weapons glinting beneath. Clearly they were to be her escorts.
But she did not want to ride out of the castle gates, into the great darkness beyond, even if she did have an escort of the clan’s largest and most skilled warriors to protect her along her way. Though sleep still muddled her mind, the frigid air quickly cleared the cobwebs away.
Her older half-sister, Elspeth Braewick, the Lady Kincaid, stood looking up at her in the shadows of the castle bailey, out of the dark frame of her cowl. Drops glittered on her face.
“Of course your wishes matter,” Elspeth answered softly, in a conciliatory tone. “But sometimes you must trust that decisions are being made for your own good. I’m sorry, Derryth, but you have no say in this. You must go.”
“Elspeth! What a paltry reply,” Derryth said with a frown. “I am not an unquestioning child.” She was nineteen, nearly twenty. “Tell me why you are sending me away.”
Derryth had only a dim, sleepy memory of Elspeth rousing her from her sleep and urging her to dress in garments that were quickly laced by two silent castle maids. Now, beneath a thick fur cloak, she wore the costume of a peasant—layers of oilskin, leather, and wool, all roughly hewn—and underneath those, not one, but two pair of heavy woolen hose. A dagger had been strapped to her waist. Instead of riding her own gentle gray pony, she sat on a hardy young mule.
Derryth’s grip on the reigns tightened, her gaze fixed unwaveringly on her sister. Why hadn’t she been told the day before of this plan? Why would they send her away now, in the dead of night?
Then suddenly … she knew.
“It’s the Wolf, isn’t it?” she whispered, her heart sinking like a weighted stone in her chest. Just speaking his name caused her vision to blur and her throat to close. Though the last two years had passed peacefully, an enemy presence loomed like a dark shadow over Inverhaven, always. A threat that had never really gone away.
“No, of course not,” Elspeth murmured with a shake of her head. Her gathered brows and half-smiling lips declared Derryth’s suggestion to be the silliest thing. But tellingly, she’d glanced away as she spoke the words.
Derryth’s pulse increased, knowing some unpleasant truth was being kept from her.
“I don’t believe you. He has threatened the Kincaids again, hasn’t he? Don’t send me away. I choose to stay here with you and Niall. I’m not afraid.”
It was a lie. She was afraid of the Wolf—Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan—and the terrible destruction he’d all but promised to wreak upon the Kincaids. But love for her sister, and all those here at Inverhaven, made her brave.
Like Elspeth, Derryth was a MacClaren by birth. But since Elspeth had married Niall Braewick, the Laird Kincaid, two harvests ago, the Kincaids had become Derryth’s family too. Once, their clans had been fierce enemies, but those times seemed a distant memory, all but forgotten.
Since early summer, Derryth had resided at An Caisteal Niaul, the Kincaid clan’s legendary Castle in the Clouds, as a guest of her sister and brother-in-law. There’d been feasts and festivals, and she’d indulged in several exciting near-romances, though she had not settled her affections on any man, as none had satisfied the always changing requirements of her heart. In the meantime, Inverhaven had all but become her home.
But now they were sending her away, to her other home—to the MacClaren stronghold at Falranroch—over which her young, widowed stepmother, Bridget, presided.
“Of course you aren’t afraid, and you shouldn’t be, because there’s nothing whatsoever to fear,” her dark-haired sister replied lightly, though Derryth heard the uneasiness that she tried to hide. “But winter has passed, and Bridget deserves a bit of respite from tending to our little sisters, Mairi and Kat, who will be so happy to see you after you’ve been gone for so long.”
She did miss Mairi and Kat. Their constant girlish chatter and fun. But she did not want to leave Elspeth, not when they had grown so close of late—since their father’s passing the previous year. In their grief, it seemed they’d seen each other for the first time through different eyes. Before, Derryth had always thought of Elspeth as her bossy older sister, but now she considered Elspeth her dearest friend. The years had taken so much from them—both of their mothers and now their father, who had been far from perfect but they loved him still. For now, it seemed important that they stay together, no matter what.
If all was well and good at Inverhaven, as her sister claimed, and she was merely being sent to help her stepmother with her little sisters, she would be leaving Inverhaven on the next clear day, not under a black night sky, heavy with unspent rain.
Anxiety pooled like ice at the pit of her stomach. Derryth knew without a doubt they were sending her away to protect her from something, which could only mean they knew of some danger or threat.
“You’ll arrive at Falranroch in two days,” Elspeth continued. “And you’ll be back in a comfortable bed before you even realize.”
She offered a forced smile, but Derryth could plainly see that the dampness in her eyes came from tears, not the rain.
Derryth’s eyes flooded in response, because Elspeth had always been the strong one, and hardly ever cried. But now her sister cried for some reason over her. Because she was afraid? Because they might never see each other again?
“I don’t even know why we are crying!” Derryth exclaimed, reaching out her hand. “Because you will not tell me!”
Elspeth reached up and grasped Derryth’s hand and sighed. Just like that, her lips lost the easy smile they’d attempted to hold.
“Oh, very well,” she said resignedly. “You coax my secrets from me, as you always do.” Elspeth’s damp eyes warmed with sudden affection, and she squeezed Derryth’s hand. “Yesterday, the old farmer, Carmag, came to the castle insisting on speaking to Niall. While working in his field, he claims to have seen three, perhaps four soldiers on a distant hill.” Her voice dipped. “King’s men.”
Fear struck through Derryth’s heart as she straightened in the saddle. Her heart beat more frantically. Her mind grasped quickly onto the words. The importance of the revelation. The air around them seemed to grow colder, and darker.
She’d been right, after all.
They might as well be called “Buchan’s men,” at least here in this distant corner of the Highlands, so far away from Scone and Edinburgh. As the third son of King Robert, and some claimed, his favorite, the Wolf commanded a force of royal soldiers and private mercenaries, which he dispatched to do his bidding. Though two years ago he had lost much of his power, he had regained it over time and remained just as dangerous as before, though until now he had kept his distance.
Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to return to the castle, to her soft, warm bed, and go back to sleep, because maybe when she awakened in the morning she would find this had all been a bad dream.
Elspeth spoke again, a hand coming up—perhaps nervously—to touch the simple bronze brooch that fastened her cowl. “Of course, no one else saw this, and poor Carmag is not the best witness. You yourself must remember a fortnight ago when he arrived naked and drunk at the castle, claiming fairies has stolen his garments—and his cow. Today Niall himself rode out, along with a large company of men, and searched all day and found nothing. No camp. No soldiers. Not even the cold remains of a fire.” Her voice softened. “So you see we don’t know if they actually were soldiers, or”—she shrugged—“just a trick of the light in the shadows and trees. But if there were soldiers, it’s possible they were scouts sent by Buchan. And if something should happen—”
“An attack.” Derryth spoke the words bluntly, shivering from more than just the cold, damp air. Here, in this place, already stained by the blood Buchan’s army had once spilled, nearly nineteen years ago.
Elspeth nodded, her skin paling a shade more in the night. “Or a siege. Then Niall and I want you to be safe and away from here, long before there is danger. Today, messengers will be sent to our allies, and all in the village will be informed and urged to come inside the walls, at least for now.”
The truth, at last. Elspeth’s words, and the fear she saw in her eyes, caused Derryth’s stomach to clench tight, and she felt almost ill. Elspeth, always so strong and decisive. Always the caretaker. Perhaps for the first time, she realized Elspeth needed tender care too.
“I won’t leave you,” Derryth said firmly, shaking her head—moving as if to dismount. “Not in your condition.”
Yet Elspeth, whose eight-month pregnant stomach could barely be discerned beneath her cloak, stilled her—reaching up and spreading a hand over hers where she clenched the saddle’s horn. “This is Buchan of whom we speak. It matters not that you are a woman,” Elspeth continued, and Derryth could see the worry and desperation in her eyes. “His actions led to the death of many innocent Kincaids. Not only Niall’s father and his warriors, but Niall’s mother and youngest brother as well. He would be no less ruthless with you or me.”
Niall appeared then, tall and strong, to stand beside her sister. Dark-haired and striking, and wearing a pladjer over his shoulder, the air became charged anytime he came near. Warriors stood straighter. Castle servants moved faster. Not from fear, but because he carried himself with such presence and each day earned their respect, and they wished, in turn, to earn his approval and praise.
“Ye’ll not be staying here, lass,” he said in his rich, deep voice. “So cease your arguing, ye’re just making your sister feel worse about it all. She’ll be joining ye as soon as the bairn is born. I’ll have ye all safe, until the danger—if it exists—has passed. Besides, ye know ye are too spoiled a lady to suffer through the hardship of a siege, should one occur.”
He spoke the words in a low, teasing tone, but with enough gravity that she knew he was serious.
Hearing his words, Derryth’s chest tightened with shame. She was indeed spoiled, and had always cared far too much for pretty things and amusements. Even now, her skin complained at the scratchiness of the rough garments she wore. Ugly, shapeless clothes she would never have chosen for herself.
She winced, regretting the pettiness of her complaints. It was why they sent her away, no doubt. They considered her a helpless creature they would only have to worry about. And why should they not? She had never proven herself to be of any true use or value to anyone other than to be marriageable, and thereby a useful tool in strengthening or gaining a new alliance.
The burden of her shortcomings weighted her heart. She knew they loved her, but unlike Elspeth she didn’t know how to properly hold a sword or stitch a wound or even clean a goose. Most important, she had no experience assisting in the birth of a child. Instead she’d spent her hours learning every possible way to plait, curl, and otherwise arrange her hair, and how to stain her lips and cheeks with cherry juice without anyone knowing she’d applied anything at all. She had mastered decorative embroidery, because as a young girl, she’d always believed her simple gowns needed something more, but what good were fanciful patterns in thread at a time like this?
Tears stung her eyes. Tears of self-reproach. Why had it taken this moment—this threat against all she loved so dearly—to make her realize she ought to be more?
As if Elspeth saw straight into her heart, she said, “Derryth, you’ve done nothing wrong. We just couldn’t bear it if something happened to you.”
“But don’t you see?” she replied, her voice unsteady. “Nor could I bear it if something happened to any of you.”
“You must trust that I will protect her and our babe.” Niall’s arm went round her sister, and his large hand squeezed her shoulder gently—an offering of comfort.
Elspeth looked up at him, love plain in her eyes, seeming small and protected within the protection of his muscular arm. Niall was a famed warrior, and fearsome both in negotiation and in battle. And yet she had seen her sister fell him with just a glance. Silence him with a single word. A kiss.
How she envied them, in the most loving way. Would she ever find a love so deeply passionate? She craved a feeling of romantic … mad love in her heart, but thus far she had found no one to inspire wishes of forever.
Shifting his gaze to Derryth, Niall said, “So go ye now. Prepare for your sister and our babe to join you, in perhaps a fortnight’s time. Mayhap even a sennight, if the child is hearty as I expect he or she will be.”
He grinned, but even here, in the dim light, Derryth perceived the dark shadows beneath his eyes, as if he had not slept since hearing of the soldiers’ presence on his lands. He loved them all so much—his wife and his clan, and yes even her silly self, whom he called “little sister.” Aye, she loved him like a brother too.
She forced herself to look past the hurt of being sent away, to the intent of his words. Niall had given her a task—to prepare for Elspeth and the bairn, and she must embrace that new purpose with enthusiasm. Whatever the future brought, she must make herself a useful part in it. As soon as she arrived at the MacClaren stronghold, she would set about educating herself on more important matters, and becoming a woman to be admired for more than a fetching braid or a pretty gown. She’d surprise them all, in the best possible way, the next time they met. Next time, they would not think of sending her away.
But what if their worst fears were realized, and she never saw them again? It was no overreaction. She had only to look at the past to know that danger was everywhere in the Highlands, and that death could strike at any moment. Trepidation filled her mind, consuming her thoughts, and causing her chest to constrict with each quickening breath.
“Oh, Elspeth,” Derryth choked, as her emotions overtook her.
How she despised Buchan—a man she’d never even seen with her own eyes—for the wrongs he had done, and for the fear he inspired. For tearing their families apart.
She leaned down, wrapping one arm around her sister’s shoulders, inhaling the familiar, comforting sweetness of her skin and hair. Niall embraced them both in his strong arms. Enveloping them in his warmth, he kissed Derryth’s temple and then his wife’s.
“I love you both,” she whispered.
Just then, a figure approached—one who became more familiar with each trundling step. The older woman smiled up at her.
“Hello, child.” Bundled heavily in garments similar to hers, the woman appeared prepared for travel, carrying a large embroidered pouch and a covered basket. “Are ye ready? Ah, don’t ye fret, my bairns. We’ll all do just fine, and I’ve brought a big basket of bread, cheese, and ham, and oh, yes, honey cakes to satisfy our bellies along the way.”
Niall moved quickly to relieve her of the burdens she carried.
Was Fiona to accompany her then? She gave a sigh of relief, and her tension lessened to some degree. Fiona always made everything seem better.
Elspeth smiled warmly at their former servant, who had always been a treasured friend, and her words confirmed what Derryth had already surmised. “Fiona has offered to journey with you. She wants to see Mairi and Kat, and she’ll help with the bairn when I join you.”
“The bairn!” exclaimed Fiona. “’Twill be a braw lad, I’ve already told ye, and I cannae wait tae meet him, after the Lord—guiding Ina’s capable hands—sees him safely into this world, without me hovering about as a distraction.”
Elspeth and Niall’s faces broke simultaneously into smiles. Fiona had once been Elspeth and Derryth’s nursemaid. Though the old woman now lived in a small cottage at the edge of the village, she remained a constant and comforting part of their lives, acting also as midwife to many in the village. With her vision failing and the pain of age in her hands, she had trained Elspeth’s maid, Ina, to take her place.
One of the younger warriors, Nathan, came forward to help Fiona into the wagon.
Glancing at the sky, Niall grew serious. “It is time. We can delay no more if you are to arrive at Falranroch tomorrow before nightfall. I’ve given instructions to the men. If you encounter anyone and there are questions, ye are merely common folk—MacClellans, traveling through on your way to work the spring fields with your Drummond kin.” The two clans he named were not sworn allies, but friendly enough to claim them if questioned. Accompanying them would be nine warriors in all. “Ye’ll take the Cairnmore road.”
Deargh appeared then from the castle, his heavily tattooed skull and face making him just a shadow in the night—a terrifying one to anyone who did not know him. An older warrior with silver shimmering in his beard, he was Niall’s fearsome second-in-command. He had also saved Niall’s life that night many years ago when the Laird and Lady Kincaid had been killed, hastening him safely away and raising him to be the warrior he’d become. He wore a dark plaid, thick leather boots, and a fur draped from his shoulders. A sword glinted at his waist.
He grinned as he passed, his manner mischievous as always. “’Tis a perfect night for a ramble across these Highlands.”
“Aye, ’tis.” Derryth nodded, heartened by his good humor.
She knew she was very special indeed to her brother-in-law if he sent Deargh to protect her, and knowing he would escort her eased her fears a thousandfold.
As for the Cairnmore road—it was not the most direct path to Falranroch, but she knew without asking why that route had been chosen. It led in the opposite direction of Carmag’s farm and the more commonly traveled Barradale road. If there were indeed soldiers, there’d be less likelihood of crossing paths on that road. There were also few settlements along the way, as the terrain was stony and rough and devoid of good farmland.
Niall added, “The men will return here, after delivering you so that we will know you and Fiona are safe and well.”
And because they would be needed in the defense of Inverhaven, though the words went unspoken. A moment later Fiona was settled into the wagon, wrapped in layers of blankets and fur.
Elspeth reached for Derryth’s hand and pressed a kiss to her wool-covered knuckles. “Farewell, sister. Until we see each other again. Very soon, I vow.”
“You’ll be a mother then!” Derryth exclaimed.
“Indeed!” Elspeth laughed.
Derryth saw tears rise again in her sister’s eyes. Her own eyes blurred.
“Dinnae cry,” she exclaimed. “Because then I’ll cry. Aye, farewell. Until then.”
Praying that she would see them again very soon, and that all this fear was for naught, Derryth pulled the reins of the mule and followed the wagon, which trundled toward the castle gates. The warriors all proceeded silently on foot.
Moments later came the heavy rattle of the gates closing behind them, gates that were normally left open so the villagers could move to and fro. High above, on the walls, Derryth perceived the outline of more sentries than usual, their faces turned out toward the night, watching.
She breathed deeply, doing her best to calm her anxiety over leaving, and her fear of the darkness that rose up all around them. Instead, she focused her thoughts on the future, and her duties at Falranroch, where she would throw herself into preparing for Elspeth’s arrival. Aye, and she would be a better sister and friend to Katrin and Mairi, and become an example of strength to them, as Elspeth had been to her.
For the moment, it had stopped raining, but here in the open the cold wind gusted into her face. She wiped her cheeks, determined to shed no more tears, and brought her woven cowl high, to cover her nose. The village of Inverhaven lay quiet and sleeping, with smoke rising from countless chimneys. For a time, Niall had maintained a large army of cateran mercenaries for the defense of Inverhaven and the clan’s surrounding lands. While many of those men and their families remained, having become a part of the clan, when spring had come, just as many had asked Niall’s leave to go off again into the world, to pursue the same adventure that had brought them here.
The mule plodded forward, and Derryth relaxed as best she could. The dagger she wore at her waist dug into her ribs with the animal’s jerky gait. She adjusted the blade on its leather strap so the hilt wouldn’t poke her so annoyingly.
Rain fell, off and on, but bundled up as she was, she wasn’t cold. Not really. The travel was tedious, a never-ending up-and-down over hill, berm, and stone. After a time, she could no longer look over her shoulder and see the castle tower looming in the dark. Eventually the road wasn’t a road at all, but merely a worn path she could not discern.
For three hours … perhaps four … there was only the monotonous turning of the wagon wheels, soft noises from the animals, and the occasional cough or mutter from one of the men to break the silence. Eventually, her eyes became heavy … and she dozed …
She started awake to find the sky above had lightened to indigo blue, in vivid contrast to the inky shadows that now surrounded them—the trees of a forest.
And yet there had been a sound.
Indeed … she had heard a sound.
Had she not?