Authors: Karyn Monk
“I’ll leave you to your bath,” said…
who also loves to tell stories.
“I’ll leave you to your bath,” said Ariella, risking a glance at MacFane now that he was in the tub. The sight of him standing powerful and naked before her had left her strangely flustered.
“Wash my back before you go.”
She didn’t move.
“Are you so afraid of getting a little soap and water on you?” he snapped.
Reluctantly, she went to him and took the cloth.
She dipped the cloth into the water and slowly drew it up his back, trailing a soothing stream across the sun-bronzed skin. Beneath the fabric of the cloth she was acutely aware of the structure of him, the even ridges of his ribs, the rippled chain of his spine, the firm depth of his flesh.
Appalled by the sensations flooding through him, Malcolm jerked away, sloshing water onto the floor.
“That’s enough,” he commanded brusquely. “Leave me.”
Something had changed between them, Ariella realized. Her touch had evolved into a forbidden exploration of his body, which was heavily scarred, but still warm and firm and seething with power.
And although loath to admit it, she had enjoyed touching him.
ONCE A WARRIOR
The Highlands of Scotland
“I am dying.”
The words were steeped in bitterness, and perhaps a shade of incredulity, as if he hoped his bleak conclusion might elicit an argument to the contrary.
Instead Alpin regarded him with gentle calm, his ancient face betraying none of the regret clawing at his soul. He had held this man in his arms the night he had gasped his first lusty breath. Alpin had told the boy’s father of the magnificent chief his son would grow to be, of the peaceful and prosperous decades that lay before the Clan MacKendrick. And as he had looked down at the pink, squalling babe, and spun golden stories about the brilliance of his future, he had known with painful, hopeless acuity that this dark moment would come. And that he would be here, by his side, to watch over this beloved child grown to man, as he released his last ragged breath from his lungs.
“It is time,” Alpin told him simply.
The MacKendrick contemplated this a moment, trying to resign himself to the idea. Screams of fear and grief tore through the corridor just beyond his chamber, suffusing his final moments with torment. Seizing the last vestiges of his strength, he angrily gripped the pulsing wound at his side and forced himself to sit up.
“But he has not come,” he protested, trying to show Alpin he must be wrong. “I must continue to lead the battle against Roderic. I will stay alive long enough to see the Black Wolf. I have to be certain he is the one.”
“That is not for you to decide,” Alpin said quietly. “Only Ariella can determine if he is fit to be laird of the clan. The decision is hers alone.”
The MacKendrick’s expression hardened. “If he is the one, he should goddamn well be here,” he grated out. “Where the hell is he?” The query thundered through the air before dissolving into a pathetic fit of coughing.
“He will come,” promised Alpin, guiding the dying laird back against his bed. “I have seen it. The Black Wolf will come.”
“You are certain?” he demanded, his voice rough with menace. “You do not seek to ease my final moments by lying?”
“I have seen it,” Alpin assured him. “He will come.”
The laird regarded him a long moment, desperate with the need to believe him. And then, seeing what he sensed was the truth reflected in Alpin’s dark stare, he permitted himself to close his eyes. “You will care for Ariella until he comes,” he commanded softly. “Keep her safe, until he comes.”
Alpin laid his pale, wizened hand against the laird’s brow and said nothing. It was not within his ability to make empty assurances of things he could neither control nor foresee. He knew MacKendrick understood this. Still, he found he could not deny a dying father a small measure of comfort. “I will watch over her, MacKendrick,” he swore. “As if she were my own.”
The words flowed over the laird in a soothing ripple. “Very well,” he murmured gruffly.
Alpin watched as he drew a few more labored breaths, fighting the onslaught of death, though they both knew it was a battle he could not win. The MacKendrick squeezed Alpin’s hand as the final breath stretched his lungs taut, holding fast to this world, until ultimately he could resist no longer. Life trickled out of him in a ragged sigh, and his grip on his friend eased a fraction of a moment later, just as Alpin had known it would.
Loss swept over him, cold and empty, as it always did when one he had loved for so many years succumbed to the frailty of their flesh. He held the laird’s hand a while longer, more to comfort himself than the battered body that lay before him, now free of suffering and void of spirit. The sounds of brutality and fear raged around him, but nothing could penetrate the wall of his grief. Finally the acrid scent of smoke permeated his frozen senses, wresting him from his trance and drawing him to the window.
He stared across the courtyard at the scarlet and gold flames licking hungrily at the wooden structure of the tower. Men and women were racing back and forth on the ground below, yelling and screaming as they desperately carried sloshing buckets of water from the well. They heaved small silvery streams up at the blaze, but the fire only laughed at their pitiful attempts to control it. A thick veil of heavy smoke gushed into the crystalline blue of the spring sky, staining it black and gray, clouding it with delicate wisps of cinders that danced on the hot breath of the fire before floating to the ground in a charcoal shower.
“Ariella!” screamed Elizabeth, her heart bursting with anguish as she stared at the inferno.
Fear pierced through Alpin as he struggled to comprehend what was happening. Roderic had locked Ariella in the tower, forcing her to watch as he ransacked her home and brutalized her people. Now the tower was afire.
Ariella was trapped inside.
“No,” he said vehemently, shaking his head. “It cannot be. It cannot.”
He watched, helplessly transfixed by the brilliant torch of deadly flames as they engulfed the room at the top of the tower. The people below continued to desperately throw water at the blaze, but their efforts could not arrest its insatiable appetite. Still they fought on, until their faces were black with smoke, until their bodies ached and their throats were raw.
Finally their cries for Ariella faded into numb, stricken silence, and they could only stand and watch the tower burn.
As always, his first sensation was pain.
He frowned and stirred restlessly on his pallet, grasping at the murky waters of sleep, which were swiftly ebbing away. In sleep the pain could be held at bay. Not completely, and not for any great length of time. Just enough that he preferred the hazy, alcohol-saturated respite to the harsh, clear glare of day.
He felt himself losing the battle of slumber to his relentless enemy. Pain streaked down his back. A familiar throbbing pulsed through his left leg. Then, of course, there was his arm. Capable of only a shadow of the strength it had once wielded, the spasm gripping the shrunken muscles was as debilitating as any warrior or weapon he had ever known. He struggled to float into the refuge of sleep once more. In sleep he could be almost whole again.
“Get up, Malcolm,” called an irritatingly cheerful voice. “You have guests.”
He did not bother to crack open an eye. “Get the hell out of here,” he growled. His tongue felt thick within the woolen dryness of his mouth. “Before I knock your head from your shoulders.”
Unperturbed, Gavin moved to the window and threw open the rough shutters. Midday light poured into the small hut in a golden stream, spilling across the cluttered dirt floor as it made its way onto Malcolm’s face.
“Jesus Christ—” Scowling against the beam, he grasped the empty pitcher lying on the ground beside him and heaved it at Gavin.
Gavin dodged to one side, and the pitcher shattered against the wall. “I realize this is early for you,” he said, his tone apologetic, “but there are some men outside who have traveled for over a week to find you. They say it is urgent they speak with you.”
Malcolm turned his head from the light and drew his aching arm over his eyes. “Tell them I am indisposed,” he drawled wearily.
“I did. I also suggested if they needed help, they should go to Harold. They said they had already been to the MacFane holding, and Harold sent them here.”
“Then they have wasted their time.” The pronouncement was absolute. “Harold should know better than to send people here.”
“They told Harold they were seeking the Black Wolf.”
Malcolm hesitated, then snorted in disgust. “The Black Wolf is dead,” he stated harshly. He rolled to face the wall, dismissing him. “Tell them that.”
“They seem to know otherwise,” remarked Gavin. “And they have assured me they will not leave until they have spoken with him. They are from the Clan MacKendrick.”
Malcolm frowned, searching his pounding, ale-soaked brain for the name MacKendrick. After a moment it came to him. “Sweet Jesus, MacKendrick is a persistent man,” he grumbled sourly. “I already told his messengers I was not interested in his offer. What the hell does he want now?”
“I don’t know,” replied Gavin, shrugging. “But if you want to get rid of this lot, you will have to come out and speak with them.”
“Christ.” He slowly pushed himself to a sitting position. The pain was bad, but he supposed it was no worse than it had been yesterday, or last week, or last year. It was becoming difficult to remember ever being without it.
The sun assaulted him with blinding brilliance as he followed Gavin outside. Through squinting eyes he saw his unwelcome visitors. Two of them were tall and sufficiently well built, one with shoulder-length hair of brown, the other with hair of black. Malcolm judged them to be no more than five and twenty. The third was barely more than a lad, with filthy, tangled hair of an indeterminate color, and a face that hadn’t been washed for weeks. Not that he was in a position to criticize on matters of appearance, he reflected ironically. As usual, Gavin had laid a meal of ale, bread, and cheese for him on the table in front of the hut. Ignoring his visitors, Malcolm reached for the jug of ale. He took a swig, swished it around in his mouth, and spat it noisily onto the ground. Thus refreshed, he tilted his head back and drank deeply, emptying the jug of its contents. Then he wiped his dripping mouth on his arm and calmly regarded the trio, who were staring at him, their expressions ranging from shock to barely disguised revulsion.
“What do you want?” he demanded brusquely.
The tall one with brown hair seemed to recover first. “I am Duncan MacKendrick,” he began, looking uncertain. “And this is Andrew, and that is Rob.” He gestured to the boy, who was glaring at Malcolm. “We are here to speak with the warrior known as the Black Wolf,” Duncan finished, evidently deciding the man standing before him could not possibly be the mighty warrior they sought.
“You have found him,” stated Malcolm curtly.
Sharp dismay flooded the faces of the two men, followed by pity. Malcolm endured their scrutiny, betraying none of his bitter humiliation. Only the boy seemed unmoved. He continued to glare at Malcolm, his expression burning with something more akin to fury than sympathy.
“Forgive us,” stammered the dark-haired one known as Andrew. “We went first to MacFane castle and learned you were no longer laird. The new MacFane sent us here, but he did not mention—that is—we were not told—” He broke off uncertainly.
Malcolm cursed silently, wondering why Harold had sent these men to him.
“What happened to the other messengers your laird sent to speak with me?” he demanded.
“They never returned,” replied Duncan. “We did not know if they had reached you with the MacKendrick’s offer.”
“They did,” Malcolm said. “And I told them, as I tell you now, I am not interested. Tell MacKendrick I consider the matter closed and do not wish to be disturbed again.” He turned and began to retreat slowly toward the quiet darkness of his hut.
“He is dead,” announced the boy, his voice flat.
Malcolm stopped. The boy’s gray eyes were seething with hatred, as if he believed Malcolm were somehow responsible.
Rob opened his mouth to respond, but Duncan interjected. “The clan was attacked by a band of marauding warriors,” he explained. “The MacKendrick was cut down by a sword. It happened several weeks after he sent word to you, asking you to come.”
“We fought them as best we could,” Andrew added, “but we are not trained in the ways of warfare. The MacKendrick hoped you and your army would be able to protect us.”
Malcolm controlled the acrid impulse to laugh. He could not fault MacKendrick for his plan. Once he had been laird of the Clan MacFane, with more than a thousand highly trained warriors ready to fight and die for him. For six long years he had fought in the army of King William, and had led his men to victory in countless bloody battles. But that was a lifetime ago. The only man he could call upon today was Gavin. If Malcolm had gone to MacKendrick and said he was accepting his offer of lairdship, the man would have fallen flat on the floor with laughter.
And these three damn well knew it.
“Were many hurt?” he demanded, wishing it did not matter to him.
“Fourteen men were killed,” answered Duncan. “Dozens more wounded. The warriors stripped the castle of what valuables they could carry. And then it was set afire.”
“I am sorry.”
Sorry he hadn’t been there to protect what at another time he could easily have defended. In MacKendrick’s letter to him the laird had described his clan as small, consisting of only a few hundred people. They had no allies, he had explained, but neither did they have any enemies. MacKendrick hoped the great Black Wolf would honor them by accepting the position of laird. As a token of faith, he offered the hand of his only child, whom he believed would make the mighty Black Wolf a gracious and devoted wife.
Malcolm had burned the letter.
“As you can see, there is little I could have done to help you,” he drawled. “My circumstances have changed somewhat since I was laird of the Clan MacFane.” He turned away abruptly. The pounding in his head had become unbearable, and he needed to numb it with another pitcher of ale.
“You must come with us, MacFane.”
Malcolm turned back and stared at the boy. “Do you think to mock me?” he demanded savagely.
“Of course not,” interjected Duncan, lifting his hand to silence Rob. “What the lad meant to say is that we desperately need your help, and we would be honored if you would return to our home with us.”
Malcolm studied him a moment, wondering if he was blind or mad. Ultimately he decided he would have to be both to make such a ludicrous suggestion.
“I am no longer MacFane,” he said, struggling to control his rearing temper. “And I am no longer the Black Wolf. If you are in need of assistance, go back to Harold and ask him to defend your clan.”
Duncan and Andrew glanced uncertainly at the boy. He frowned and shook his head. “It has to be you,” he stated, his gray gaze locked on Malcolm. “There is no other who can help us.”
Shallow laughter erupted from Malcolm’s chest. “How can I help you? I lead no army. My body is little better than that of a cripple. What in the name of God could I do to defend your clan?”
“I do not know,” admitted the boy. “But you will come with us.”
He regarded Malcolm with grim resignation, as if he wished it were otherwise. Malcolm found himself strangely transfixed by that cool slate stare, which was condemning yet haunted, the look of a child who has witnessed terrible things he will never be able to forget. As they gazed at each other, Malcolm forgot his pain. For one brief moment he felt strong and whole, like the warrior he had once been, who would not have hesitated to rush to the aid of this frightened, brutalized clan. As quickly as it came, the sensation abandoned him, leaving him aching and tired and empty.
And acutely aware that he had nothing left to offer anyone, least of all a helpless clan in need of a chief with a powerful army.
“I can’t help you,” he snapped. “Now, get the hell out of here and leave me be.”
He turned and limped back into the dark cave of his hut, feeling broken and ashamed, and badly in need of a drink.
Ariella stared pensively into the fire, watching the scarlet and gold flames offer beauty and warmth as they mercilessly drew the life out of the wood that sustained them. Alpin had once told her that nothing in the world existed in isolation, that everything was dependent upon something else in order to survive. Ariella had immediately thought of her unconditional love for her father and had understood completely. Without him Ariella knew she could not survive.
On the terrible day he was murdered, she had curled into a tiny ball beside him and willed herself to die as well. To her bitter disappointment, she did not. For weeks after, she awoke each morning to find herself very much alive, despite the fact that her heart was bursting with such grief, she felt certain she could not bear it another moment.
Finally, realizing she had to go on, she learned to temper her grief with hate.
At first she directed her hatred at Roderic. He had lied to her, pretending to be a friend, then betraying her trust by bringing an army to attack her clan, thinking to force her to give him the sword and make him laird. Hating Roderic was easy. But it was not enough. So she included all of his warriors beneath the mantle of her loathing, those evil savages who had derived such vile pleasure from attacking her people and her home, easily slaughtering defenseless men who barely knew how to lift a weapon. But these were faceless, nameless figures, and hating them could not begin to ease the agony coursing through her veins.
And so she had sharpened the dagger of her hatred and thrust it ruthlessly into the heart of the Black Wolf.
Alpin had told her father he would come. He had seen it in a vision, and Alpin’s visions, though sometimes hazy, were never wrong. Her father waited, jubilant with the knowledge that the next laird of his clan would be a man with the exceptional bravery and honor of the chief known as the Black Wolf. As his wariness of Roderic increased and the Black Wolf failed to arrive, Ariella’s father grew concerned. He sent two clansmen to find this warrior and deliver his message, offering him lairdship of the Clan MacKendrick and Ariella for his wife, if he would come immediately with his great army.
The Black Wolf never came.