The Highlander Series(2)By: Maya Banks
“Hush now,” she told him in his own language. “Be still. I won’t let them hurt you.”
“Get off him!” Finn roared.
She tightened around the little boy who finally stopped kicking and flailing. Finn reached down and curled his hand into her hair, yanking brutally upward, but she refused to let go of her charge.
“You’ll have to kill me first,” she said cooly when he forced her to look at him.
He dropped her hair with a curse then reared back and kicked her in the ribs. She hunched over in pain but was careful to keep the child shielded from the maniacal brute.
“Finn, enough,” one man barked. “The laird wants her in one piece.”
Muttering a curse, he backed away. “Let her keep the dirty beggar. She’ll have to turn loose of him soon enough.”
Mairin snapped her neck up to glare into Finn’s eyes. “You touch this boy even once and I’ll slit my own throat.”
Finn’s laughter cracked the night. “That’s one crazy bluff, lass. If you’re going to try to negotiate, you need to learn to be believable.”
Slowly she rose until she stood a foot away from the much larger man. She stared up at him until his eyes flickered and he looked away.
“Bluff?” she said softly. “I don’t think so. In fact, if I were you, I’d be guarding any and all sharp objects from me. Think you that I don’t know what my fate is? To be bedded by that brute laird of yours until my belly swells with child and he can claim Neamh Álainn. I’d rather die.”
Finn’s eyes narrowed. “You’re daft!”
“Aye, that might be so, and in that case I’d be worried one of those sharp objects might find its way between your ribs.”
He waved his hand. “You keep the boy. The laird will deal with him and you. We don’t take kindly to horse thieves.”
Mairin ignored him and turned back to the boy who huddled on the ground, staring at her with a mixture of fear and worship.
“Come,” she said gently. “If we snuggle up tight enough, there’s plenty of blanket for the both of us.”
He went eagerly to her, tucking his smaller body flush against hers.
“Where is your home?” she asked when he had settled against her.
“I don’t know,” he said mournfully. “It must be a ways from here. At least two days.”
“Shh,” she said soothingly. “How did you come to be here?”
“I got lost. My papa said I was never to leave the keep without his men, but I was tired of being treated like a baby. I’m not, you know.”
She smiled. “Aye, I know. So you left the keep?”
He nodded. “I took a horse. I only meant to go meet Uncle Alaric. He was due back and I thought to wait near the border to greet him.”
“Of our lands.”
“And who is your papa, little one?”
“My name is Crispen, not ‘little one.’ ” The distaste was evident in his voice, and she smiled again.
“Crispen is a fine name. Now continue with your story.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Mairin,” she answered softly.
“My papa is Laird Ewan McCabe.”
Mairin struggled to place the name, but there were so many clans she had no knowledge of. Her home was in the highlands, but she hadn’t seen God’s country in ten long years.
“So you went to meet your uncle. Then what happened?”
“I got lost,” he said mournfully. “Then a McDonald soldier found me and intended to take me to his laird to ransom, but I couldn’t let that happen. It would dishonor my papa, and he can’t afford to ransom me. It would cripple our clan.”
Mairin stroked his hair as his warm breath blew over her breast. He sounded so much older than his tender years. And so proud.
“I escaped and hid in the cart of a traveling merchant. I rode for a day before he discovered me.” He tilted his head up, bumping her sore jaw again. “Where are we, Mairin?” he whispered. “Are we very far from home?”
“I’m not sure where your home is,” she said ruefully. “But we are in the lowlands, and I would wager we’re at least a two days’ ride from your keep.”
“The lowlands,” he spat. “Are you a lowlander?”
She smiled at his vehemence. “Nay, Crispen. I’m a highlander.”
“Then what are you doing here?” he persisted. “Did they steal you from your home?”
She sighed. “ ’Tis a long story. One that began before you were born.”
When he tensed for another question, she hushed him with a gentle squeeze. “Go to sleep now, Crispen. We must keep our strength up if we are to escape.”
“We’re going to escape?” he whispered.
“Aye, of course. That’s what prisoners do,” she said in a cheerful tone. The fear in his voice made her ache for him. How terrifying it must be for him to be so far from home and the ones who love him.
“Will you take me back home to my papa? I’ll make him protect you from Laird Cameron.”
She smiled at the fierceness in his voice. “Of course, I’ll see to it that you get home.”
* * *
“Find my son!”
Ewan McCabe’s roar could be heard over the entire courtyard. His men all stood at attention, their expressions solemn. Some were creased in sympathy. They believed Crispen to be dead, though no one dared to utter that possibility to Ewan.
It wasn’t something Ewan hadn’t contemplated himself, but he would not rest until his son was found—dead or alive.
Ewan turned to his brothers, Alaric and Caelen. “I cannot afford to send every man in search of Crispen,” he said in a low voice. “To do so would leave us vulnerable. I trust you two with my life—with my son’s life. I want you each to take a contingent of men and ride in different directions. Bring him home to me.”
Alaric, the second oldest of the McCabe brothers, nodded. “You know we won’t rest until he is found.”
“Aye, I know,” Ewan said.
Ewan watched as the two strode off, shouting orders to their men. He closed his eyes and curled his fingers into fists of rage. Who dared take his son? For three days he’d waited for a ransom demand, only none had been forthcoming. For three days he’d scoured every inch of McCabe land and beyond.
Was this a precursor to an attack? Were his enemies plotting to hit him when he was weak? When every available soldier would be involved in the search?
His jaw hardened as he gazed around his crumbling keep. For eight years he’d struggled to keep his clan alive and strong. The McCabe name had always been synonymous with power and pride. Eight years ago they’d withstood a crippling attack. Betrayed by the woman Caelen loved. Ewan’s father and young wife had been killed, their child surviving only because he’d been hidden by one of the servants.
Almost nothing had been left when he and his brothers had returned. Just a hulking mass of ruins, his people scattered to the winds, his army nearly decimated.
There had been nothing for Ewan to take over when he became laird.
It had taken this long to rebuild. His soldiers were the best trained in the highlands. He and his brothers worked brutal hours to make sure there was food for the old, the sick, the women, and the children. Many times the men went without. And silently they grew, adding to their numbers until, finally, Ewan had begun to turn their struggling clan around.
Soon, his thoughts could turn to revenge. Nay, that wasn’t accurate. Revenge had been all that sustained him for these past eight years. There wasn’t a day he hadn’t thought about it.
“Laird, I bring news of your son.”
Ewan whipped around to see one of his soldiers hurrying up to him, his tunic dusty as though he’d just gotten off his horse.
“Speak,” he commanded.
“One of the McDonalds came upon your son three days ago along the northern border of your land. He took him, intending to deliver him to their laird so he could ransom the boy. Only, the boy escaped. No one has seen him since.”
Ewan trembled with rage. “Take eight soldiers and ride to McDonald. Deliver him this message. He will present the soldier who took my son to the entrance of my keep or he signs his own death warrant. If he doesn’t comply, I will come for him myself. I will kill him. And it won’t be quick. Do not leave a word out of my message.”
The soldier bowed. “Aye, Laird.”
He turned and hurried off, leaving Ewan with a mix of relief and rage. Crispen was alive, or at least he had been. McDonald was a fool for breaching their tacit peace agreement. Though the two clans could hardly be considered allies, McDonald wasn’t stupid enough to incite the wrath of Ewan McCabe. His keep might be crumbling, and his people might not be the best-fed clan, but his might had been restored twofold.
His soldiers were a deadly fighting force to be reckoned with, and those close enough to Ewan’s holdings realized it. But Ewan’s sights weren’t on his neighbors. They were on Duncan Cameron. Ewan wouldn’t be happy until the whole of Scotland dripped with Cameron’s blood.
Mairin gazed wearily at the looming keep as they rode through the final stone skirt and into the courtyard. Thoughts of escape deteriorated as she stared helplessly at the massive holding. It was impenetrable.