Never love a highlander, p.33
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       Never Love a Highlander, p.33
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         Part #3 of McCabe Trilogy series by Maya Banks
Page 33

 

  With the blades kissing, Caelen thrust his boot into Cameron’s midsection, knocking him back. He followed, pressing his momentary advantage by launching a series of blows that had Cameron retreating.

  The insistent clang of metal rang in his ears. Around him the smell of death was thick and cloying. Much of the roar had faded, as McCabes and McDonalds alike worked to dispatch the men who’d sworn their loyalty to a man with no honor.

  All Caelen could see over and over was Rionna staggering to her knees before pitching forward to the ground. A sound much like that of a wounded animal bellowed from his throat.

  For all Cameron’s cowardice, he was a skilled warrior, and he was fighting for his life. He knocked Caelen back and swung his sword. Caelen went to his knees and jerked his head back so the blade cut through empty air just an inch from his throat.

  His shoulder burned, stinging from sweat and slick with blood. His strength was fast ebbing and he had to end this quickly. His brothers were occupied with their own battle across the courtyard. There was no one to aid Caelen. He had no reserves to draw on.

  He staggered to his feet after deflecting yet another blow and prepared to launch himself directly at his enemy. Cameron raised his sword over his head and, with a snarl, started to leap forward to meet Caelen’s attack, when suddenly a sword thrust through Cameron’s chest.

  He was completely impaled on the length. The point sliced through the front, bathed in crimson. Cameron looked down in complete befuddlement, his eyes glassy as death crept over him.

  As his knees buckled and he slipped to the ground, Rionna came into view. She gripped the hilt of her sword with both hands, her face as pale as death. When she lifted her gaze from Cameron’s lifeless body to Caelen, her eyes were cloudy with pain and as dull and glassy as Cameron’s had looked when he drew his last breath.

  “He didn’t deserve to die with honor,” she whispered. “He has none. ”

  She took one step forward then bobbled and put her other foot back to steady herself. Then she sagged and went to her knees in the snow.

  All Caelen could see was the blood that soaked her tunic.

  “Rionna!” he cried.

  He dropped his sword and ran forward, catching her as she pitched sideways. He gathered her close to his chest and gently lowered her to her side, mindful of the dagger still deep within her flesh.

  “Thank God,” she whispered as she stared up at him, her eyes so dim that it was like all the life had leeched right out of them. The usual wash of gold and amber, so warm and vibrant, was a dull shade of brown, like trees in winter. “I worried so. I couldn’t find you during battle. I worried you’d been killed. ”

  A spasm of pain crossed her face and she gave a soft sigh as she closed her eyes.

  He touched her cheek, her mouth, her eyes, and even her ears. “Don’t you die, Rionna. Do you hear me? Don’t you dare die on me. You’ll live. I command it. Oh God,” he said brokenly. “Please don’t die, lass. You can’t leave me. ”

  He lifted her against his chest and rocked back and forth, grief so thick in his heart that he couldn’t breathe.

  “I love you,” he said fiercely. “ ’Tis not true that I kept a part of my heart locked away from you. You own all of it, lass. You’ve always owned it. I didn’t give it to you. You took it from the very start. ”

  He touched her cheek again, willing her to open her eyes, and as if she answered his unspoken demand, her eyelids fluttered and opened, but it was evident it cost her dearly.

  She smiled faintly. “ ’Tis glad I am to hear it, husband, for ’tis the truth I despaired of you ever giving me the words I most wanted to hear. ”

  “You stay with me and you’ll hear them every day for the rest of our lives,” he said in a harsh tone that was rife with grief and desperation. “Ah, lass, I don’t deserve you. ’Tis God’s truth, I don’t, but I want you all the same and I’ll not live a single day without you. ”

  “What a pair we are,” she whispered. “Battered, bruised, and bloody. Too weak to help the other to our deathbed. ’Tis the truth we’ll have to die here because I lack the strength to carry you. ”

  The teasing in her tone was his undoing. The knot swelled in his throat and tears burned his eyes, crowding in until his vision went wet and blurry.

  “Aye, lass, you have the right of it. Perhaps my brothers will come along and carry the both of us to our sick beds. But if you think you get your own bed, you’re sorely mistaken. ”

  “I’ve never before seen such a pitiful sight. What say you, Alaric?”

  Caelen looked up to see Ewan and Alaric standing over him and Rionna. Worry burned bright in their gazes but Ewan’s tone was light and jesting, as if he was loathe to let his fear bleed over into his words.

  “Methinks marriage has made my brother soft,” Alaric replied. “ ’Tis a shame when a puny lass has to save his arse. ”

  “Come down here and I’ll show you puny,” Rionna grumbled.

  Caelen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so he sat there, with Rionna gathered tight in his grasp, and buried his face in her hair. He shook from head to toe as it sank in just how close he’d come to losing her, and in fact, he could lose her still.

  “How is she?” Gannon demanded as he ran up.

  “Gannon,” she said in weak delight. “So glad you made it. I owe you my thanks. We couldn’t have done it without you. ”

  Gannon looked much the same as Caelen felt. Awed. Scared. Mystified.

  “Nay, my lady. I have no doubt you and your men would have taken on the whole of Duncan Cameron’s army and dragged Caelen home to McDonald keep. ”

  He knelt beside Caelen in the snow and feathered a hand over Rionna’s forehead. “ ’Tis God’s truth, my lady. Never have I met a lass as brave and as fierce as you. I’m honored to serve you. I’m grateful you were able to save our laird’s life. I’ve grown used to serving with the grumpy bastard. ”

  Rionna laughed and then promptly broke off with a groan, as pain wracked her small frame. “He is grumpy, but I’m going to work on that. ”

  Ewan laid a hand on Caelen’s shoulder when another spasm of pain crawled over Rionna’s face. “Let her go, Caelen. Let Alaric carry her back into the keep. The battle is over. Cameron is dead, and the few men who still live are scattered and running. We must see to both of your wounds. ”

  “Caelen?”

  Caelen looked down and brushed away the hair from her eyes. “Aye, lass. ”

  Her unfocused gaze found his and she licked her lips. “I seem to have a dagger in my back. Could you take it out for me?”

  CHAPTER 33

  “If you don’t let me tend your wounds, you’ll die, and what good will you be to Rionna then?” Ewan demanded in exasperation.

  Caelen snarled back at his brother, his impatience simmering like a cauldron. “You should be with Rionna. She is who needs tending. If she dies because we stand here arguing, I’ll make Mairin a widow, I swear it. ”

  Ewan blew out his breath in frustration. “If I have to sit on you and have Alaric clean your wound, I’ll do it. The sooner you allow me to tend you, the sooner Rionna will get the care she needs. ”

  Caelen swore viciously. “Would you allow me to tend you if Mairin had suffered as Rionna has? Nay, you would insist that Mairin be taken care of first. ”

  “Gannon is with Rionna. He’ll call if he has need of me. Rionna’s wound is fresh. Yours is not and it has already begun festering. Damn it, Caelen, give over so that you can rest beside Rionna. ”

  ’Twas the mention of being able to be with Rionna that made Caelen yield. While they stood arguing, Rionna was alone and without comfort and it twisted Caelen’s stomach into knots. He still remembered his harsh words, the fact that he had at first believed the worst of her. He would not have her believe he thought ill of her any longer.

  “You burn with fever,” Ewan said grimly when Caelen was laid on the bed in one of the chambers.
“You worry for Rionna, but ’tis the truth you are far more seriously wounded. ”

  “She’s with child,” Caelen said in a low voice. “I know not even if you were aware of it yet. She was out fighting for my life when she carries a child. She had to have ridden nonstop to arrive here when she did. God’s teeth, Ewan, but it makes me want to weep like a babe. ”

  “Aye, I know it,” Ewan said. “But Rionna is a strong-willed lass. I don’t see her giving up without a fight. She was hell-bent on saving you, damn king and country and whether I agreed or not. Gannon rode into Neamh Álainn and delivered her orders as imperiously as a man ever did. ”

  “She’s one of a kind,” Caelen murmured. “And I didn’t appreciate her for the wonder she is. I tried too hard to change her and mold her into what I thought I wanted. ”

  Ewan chuckled. “I don’t imagine she put up with that. ”

  Caelen smiled ruefully then swore when Ewan began cleaning the arrow wound. “Nay, she didn’t. She’s a fierce lass. I …” He broke off, unable to voice the words. Nay, he wouldn’t speak them here. ’Twas not for his brother to hear, but for Rionna, and he wouldn’t give them to anyone but her. She’d fought for them. She’d demanded them. She’d bloody well have them.

  “Tell me of Neamh Álainn,” Caelen said through gritted teeth, as pain swamped over him.

  “ ’Tis the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Ewan said quietly. “The keep has existed for over a century and it looks as though it were constructed yesterday. The king’s men have guarded it well since Alexander’s passing. He provided well for Mairin and her firstborn. ’Tis a fine legacy bestowed upon Isabel. ”

  “Men will seek Isabel as they did Mairin,” Caelen said grimly. “ ’Tis a fine legacy, aye, but it won’t be an easy burden for the lass. ”

  “She’ll have protection that Mairin didn’t,” Ewan said. “Mairin was left without someone to guard her until she married. It won’t be the same for Isabel. I’ll watch over her well until she decides who she’ll marry. ”

  Caelen smiled at the edge in his brother’s voice. “You’ll give her a choice then. ”

  “Aye. She’ll have better than Mairin had. I never want her to feel as desperate as Mairin felt or be forced to choose the lesser of two evils because she’s backed into a corner. ”

  “ ’Tis a good thing. We’ve brought exceptional women into the McCabe clan. We’ll breed little warriors with the fire and intelligence of their mothers for sure. ”

  Ewan chuckled. “Aye. That we will. ”

  Caelen winced again when Ewan poked at the wound. “God’s teeth, Ewan, are you done yet?”

  “It needs stitching and you’ll lie there and allow it or so help me I’ll sew your mouth shut. ”

  “Just get on with it. I want to get back to Rionna. I’ll not have her think the worst when she doesn’t see me. ”

  “I’ve sent Alaric to tell her that you’re carrying on as usual and making threats. She’ll know you’re fine when she hears that. ”

  “If I didn’t hurt so badly, I’d hit you for that. ”

  Ewan grinned. “You can try. You’re as weak as a newborn babe at the moment. I think Rionna could take you even with a dagger in her back. ”

  Caelen sobered. “She amazes me, Ewan. I don’t even know how to act around her. How can I ever go beyond the fact that she risked all for me?”

  “You’d do the same for her,” Ewan said bluntly. “It stands to reason she’d stand up for you as well. They broke the mold when they made her. You’re well blessed, Caelen. I hope you know it. ”

  “Aye, I do,” he murmured.

  “There,” Ewan said as he sat back. “ ’Tis stitched and the bleeding has stopped. ”

  Caelen tried to rise but he fell back on his side, every bit of his strength gone. His muscles felt like mush, and he was so weak he could barely lift his arm.

  He cursed and struggled to rise again. “Help me up, damn it. ”

  “I’ll help you to the chamber where Rionna is if you swear to stay abed. ”

  “I’ll not bargain with you over Rionna,” Caelen growled. “I’ll not leave her even for a moment. ”

  “ ’Tis a serious wound, Caelen. You’re fevered and your strength is gone. You could die if you won’t have a care. ”

  “Help me up,” he said again.

  Ewan shook his head and pulled Caelen to a sitting position. “I swear I have no idea whose loins you sprang from. I’m convinced you were left on the steps to the keep when you were a wee bairn. ”

  Caelen sobered as he struggled to his feet. Cameron’s words about their father drifted back into his hazy consciousness. He would never know if there was any truth to Cameron’s rantings. But he wouldn’t relate the story to his brothers. There was no need to plant any doubt in their minds. Cameron had existed on hatred and revenge for years and it had brought him nothing. In the end, he’d brought dishonor on himself and the father he claimed to avenge.

 
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