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A Storm of Love
By Terri Brisbin
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Theresa S. Brisbin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNear Kilmartin Glen, southwest Scotland, 1083 A.D.
Breac peered up at the darkening sky and wiped the rain out of his face. For the fifth time in only minutes. The storm swirled, throwing winds in his face and dowsing him in waves of rain that soaked through the layers of woolen plaid. His chances and plans of returning to his home in less than three days faded even as the daylight did. Hell!
His luck in finding the healer near Dunadd had been unexpected, for 'twas rumored that she traveled through the Highlands during the summer months, gathering plants and seedlings for use in her concoctions. He reached down and touched the pouch tied carefully to his belt. Concoctions such as the one he now carried back to heal his sister from the strange, lingering fever that struck her down.
Pushing on through the boggy ground, Breac tried to force his way along the washed-out path, but his steps became slower and slower. The unrelenting rain would, he feared, be his undoing this day. Finally, accepting the futility of making it any farther before night fell completely, he began to search for a dry, or drier, place to seek refuge from this storm. He spied a clearing ahead and made his way there, hoping to be able to see more once he reached it. Just as he approached it, Breac reached up to push a low-hanging branch from his path and stopped, searching for a good place to seek protection from the storm on this higher ground.
A copse of trees with thick and heavily leafed branches offered him exactly what he needed. Without heavy brush at their base, the canopy they formed above the ground would keep him mostly dry. Creeping in between the trunks, he kicked the pile of damp leaves from beneath him and slid down, using one of the trees at his back as a guide. With his tightly woven wool cloak wrapped around him, Breac might keep the worst of the storm away. Some time passed as he dozed in and out of a light, fitful sleep, one filled with dreams, nay nightmares, of his sister's death.
Breac reached up and rubbed his face, frustration and sadness filling him once more at the thought of his failure. Fenella was his responsibility. He'd sworn to his mother that he would care for her and protect her, and instead, he'd failed. Releasing a deep breath, he knew that he was her only hope now and he would not fail her again. When the rain began to ease a bit, he thought about getting a few more miles behind him, but the winds did not relent and without the light of the moon, it would be impossible to see his path until morn.
Leaning his head back against the tree's trunk behind him, he closed his eyes and sought sleep once more. No more than several minutes could have passed when the sounds of someone approaching grew louder ... and closer. Others traveling in this same dismal weather? He knew not, but decided to stay in his place and let them pass, if they did, without bringing attention to himself.
Two men, riding horses, broke through the last of the bushes surrounding this clearing and stopped. One of them, the younger one by looks, lifted a large bundle from his lap and dropped it on the ground. The sounds made when it hit the ground told him that it was alive.
An animal of some kind? Breac slowly pulled himself up to stand, but stayed within the protection of the trees as he watched the younger man climb down from his horse and push the bundle with his foot. It rolled several times as he kicked it across the clearing to the brush at the edge. A cry or grunt echoed with each kick. Breac waited.
"Are ye awake then?" the man asked as he reached down and, using his dagger, slit open the cloak or sack that enshrouded the person within. He gripped both sides and tore it, pulling it free and dumping a bound, naked woman on the wet ground.
A woman? Aye, clearly one, whose feminine curves were not hidden by gown or cloak. Gagged, with her hands tied behind her back, she struggled weakly against those bonds.
"Go ahead, Keegan," the older man called out from his place on top of his horse. "Finish this."
From the seriousness of the tone used when giving the order, Breac expected the younger man to kill the woman, but the younger one put his dagger back in his boot and held out his hand. The older one tossed a large cudgel to him. Rolling her on her back with his foot, he positioned himself over the woman and lifted the club.
"This time you should heed his warning and not return to the village," he said swinging the heavy weapon over his head. The woman began to struggle under his foot and he leaned more heavily on her until she stopped. "This time, you will not be able to come back."
Breac was within an arm's reach before he even decided to intervene, grabbing the club from the young man and throwing it into the trees. He took hold of this Keegan's cloak and tossed him aside, away from the woman, where he could watch both of the men.
"You should not interfere in something not of your concern, stranger," the older man warned. "Her lord has exiled her and she disobeys his orders. He has the right to punish her and we carry out his orders."
Breac could not think of whose lands were nearby or which lord would order such a thing, but he shook his head.
"Who orders such a thing?" he asked. Glancing over at her was a mistake as he realized in a second for her eyes were wild with terror and her naked body shook in fear and cold. "I see not the brand of a whore on her breast. No fingers or hands are missing befitting a thief. What crime has she committed against her lord to earn this kind of punishment?"
He knew he had no standing, no legal right to stop their actions, and he had no doubt they did act on the orders of their lord. But something in her gaze drew him into this and forced him to step where he most likely should not go. The two drew swords then and faced him, one on foot, one on horse, and he knew he was no match for them. But he stood his ground, keeping them on one side and her on the other. Needing to ease the situation or end up dead like this unknown woman would be, Breac held his hands up to show he was not going to fight them.
"It seems a waste of an able-bodied woman when I need a slave to work my farm," he said. Nodding at her, he made his offer. "I will take her and make certain she never returns here." He tugged at his belt and breeches with an obvious gesture, leered at her nakedness, and then smiled. "She will not have the strength to go very far when I finish with her."
The men understood his meaning and so did the woman, for she struggled once more against the ropes binding her legs and hands, managing only to dig herself deeper into the layer of mud at the edge of the clearing where she lay. He could see the doubt in their expressions but he waited, not offering any more words that could sway them or seem overly anxious. He only hoped, for some reason not clear to even him, that the look of disdain for their assignment and exhaustion on the man's face won out over any qualms of handing her over to him. Finally, the older one nodded.
"Take her then and make certain she is never seen any farther south than the standing stones again." He pointed off to the south toward the rings of ancient stone pillars that stood like silent sentinels along the glen. So, her lord governed the lands south of Dunadd then? Breac nodded, but Keegan objected.
"How do we know he will keep his word, Callum? If she returns, it will be our backs that will bear the whip. I say we at least do what our lord ordered-break her legs to make certain she cannot come closer than this." He put his sword back in the scabbard but picked up a large rock as his weapon.
Holy Christ in Heaven! Breaking her legs as he intended to do was as much a death sentence as simply killing her. She would never walk again and the wounds would no doubt fester. Her end would be tortuous and filled with fever and grievous pain. What sin could she have committed to warrant such a brutal punishment? He appealed to Callum, hoping the older warrior would agree.
"I have nothing to give you but my word and I give that as my solemn oath. This woman will never return here or any place south of the stones."
She whimpered again, but he would not look at her. Meeting Callum's gaze, he waited for his answer. He would deal with her once these men were on their way.
"Where is your farm, stranger?" Callum asked.
"More than three days walk from here, many miles north and east of An t-Oban Lotharnach," he exaggerated, wanting the soldier to be comforted by such a distance. He thought Callum would not agree, but then he called Keegan off and the younger man dropped the rock and returned to his horse, muttering his unhappiness with every step. Breac held his breath, hoping this tentative agreement would stand. Callum leaned over and said something under his breath to Keegan, the words he could not hear but they seemed to quiet his objections.
"She is yours now," Callum called out. "Stand by your word or I will find you."
He watched as they left the clearing, heading back in the direction from which they'd come. He didn't move until the sounds of their departure disappeared into the sounds of the storm around him. Any daylight faded quickly and he must handle her before it was too dark to see anything.
Breac reached down and drew his own dagger from its place in his boot and walked toward her. She struggled now, but could not go anywhere but deeper into the mud tied as she was. He stood over her and shook his head in disgust. Then, with blade in hand, he bent down.
Chapter TwoShe could only hope it would be a quicker death than the one Donnell had ordered for her. Aigneis had no chance against this giant of a man, not trussed as she was and exhausted from the brutal ride to wherever this place was. Donnell had claimed to love her and to accept her but now he ordered her death without a moment's hesitation. To fit his needs and to accomplish his goals.
Offering up a prayer to the Christian God, for the old ones had long ignored her pleas, she closed her eyes and waited for the dagger to do its work. After committing as many sins as she had, it did not surprise her that no god would help her. The prick of the dagger into her skin as it sliced through the rough ropes at her ankles shocked more than hurt her.
Aigneis opened her eyes to find the man reaching for her now. Ah, his promise to use her would happen before he killed her and to do that her legs needed to be freed. Unable to watch, she closed her eyes tightly and tried not to struggle and make him angry. Angry men were more dangerous and more likely to add pain to the punishments they wrought. Keegan was one of such men.
Yet again, his actions surprised her, for instead of spreading her legs, he grabbed her at the waist and turned her. When she thought he would position himself at her back and take her from behind, the prick of the dagger scratched her skin again, this time at her wrists. Her hands and arms were without feeling from being tied so tightly for so long and fell useless at her sides. She could not even lift them to defend herself now.
The man rolled her onto her back once more and just as he reached for the thick gag stuffed into her mouth, her arms and hands burned with feeling again. Like a fire racing through her body, her skin and muscles came alive again and she moaned against the rough cloth at the intense pain of it. Before she knew it, the dagger sliced again and he tugged the cloth out of her mouth.
Why did he draw this out? Why did he not simply strike and end it? His touch was almost gentle as he lifted her muddy hair from her face and touched the place across her cheeks and mouth where the cloth had been tied so tightly. This was worse than pain or facing his anger, for it made her damned soul think there was still a chance for life. And there could not be that.
Or could there?
He seemed neither inclined to take her body or her life just then. Once he'd released all the bonds, he stood and lifted her slowly to her feet, supporting her from behind with his strong arms around her. The mud made his efforts more difficult and he stilled for a moment when one of his hands slipped along her skin and cupped her breast instead. Waiting for the inevitable, Aigneis could not believe when he moved his hand back to her waist and stood with her.
"You must move around," he said, his voice gruff with the effort it was taking him to hold her up. "The ropes could have damaged your limbs and lying on the cold ground will not help." When his hand slipped a second time and he let out a harsh curse, Aigneis flinched and waited for him to strike. Instead he placed his large hands around her arms like the gold cuffs she used to wear when she was ... She shook her head to try to clear her thoughts.
He stood at least a foot taller than she and, because of the hooded cloak or cloth he wore, she only caught a glimpse of his true appearance. With the rain and wind blowing in her eyes, she could only hear his voice and feel the strength in his arms as they held her and in his legs as they supported her.
He began walking forward, forcing her legs to move. She wanted to curse him for it as the painful burning crept down now to her feet, making every step an anguishing one. They'd struggled through more than a dozen paces before the pain lessened and her legs began to support more of her weight. Just as she was able to take a few steps on her own, she felt her body tumbling down. Her scream echoed through the trees.
The icy cold of the water as she hit forced her breath from her body and it surrounded her, pulling her under and down. Aigneis struggled against the cold and the water, trying to hold her breath as she fought to find her way out. Did he mean to drown her like some unwanted dog? Her flailing hands grasped onto his strong arm in that instant and instead of holding her down, he pulled her above the surface. Gasping, she clung to his arm, hoping to get a chance to fight back.
"Hush now," he said softly as he lifted her out of the water. "You were caked with mud and bleeding from a wound I could not see." He smoothed her hair back out of her eyes, treating her with a gentleness that belied her new position-slave to him as master.
"Are you going to kill me?" she asked, trying to calm both the fear and the awful coldness that now shot through her.
He released her with a dark frown and fumbled in the leather bag he carried over his shoulder for something. She drew back as far as she could, but his tall form blocked her way. With the stream at her back and trees forming a row on either side of them, she stood trapped within his grasp. Instead of a weapon, he drew out a garment and shook it out.
"Wring the water out of your hair and put this on," he ordered. "Though 'tis summer and the air can warm, that stream starts high in the hills and never does."
It was a shirt, a long one that ended at her knees when she managed to get it over her head, after twisting her hair to release as much water as possible. The front gaped, exposing her breasts and much of her stomach to his gaze. Since he'd seen and touched her naked body both covered in mud and clean, she thought that was the least of her troubles.
Until she noticed the glint of lust in his gaze as he pushed the woolen cloak from his head and stared at her.
'Twas almost as though covering some of her nakedness was more appealing to him than seeing every inch of her skin. It lasted only a few moments, before he swallowed and nodded at the sky.
"We have precious little daylight left. We should see to your leg and find a drier place for the night." His voice was even and almost comforting. He held out his hand as he backed a few paces from her. "Come."
Whether the exhaustion of the last weeks finally took control or the insanity that Donnell accused her of having set in, she knew not. Aigneis knew only that she could fight no longer. She met the man's gaze as he nodded and motioned with his hand to follow him. Lowering her eyes, she now noticed the gash on her leg and watched as the blood trickled down over her ankle and dripped onto the already-soaked ground beneath her.
Excerpted from A Storm of Love by Terri Brisbin Copyright © 2010 by Theresa S. Brisbin. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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