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His sister was going to die.
Killian MacDubh could see it, even if everyone around him was in denial. Though Carice was still the most beautiful woman in Eireann, her body was fragile. She left her bed rarely, and when she did, she often had to be carried back. Her illness had struck hard, several years ago, and she'd wasted away ever since. This evening, she had sent word that she needed to speak with him, but he did not know why.
Outside, the rain pounded against the mud, but another storm brewed inside Killian. There was a restless anticipation within him, as if an invisible threat hung over all of them. He couldn't place it, but all day, he'd been pacing.
His tunic and leggings were soaked through, and he stood at the back of the Great Chamber. The moment he stepped inside, Brian Faoilin's face was grim with distaste, as if a stray dog had wandered into his house. The chieftain loathed the very air Killian breathed. Though he'd allowed Iona to keep the bastard son she'd brought with her, Brian had forced both of them to live among the fuidir. All his life, Killian had slept among the dogs and dined upon scraps from the table. He was forbidden to possess any rights of the tribe or own any land. It should have taught him his place. Instead, it had fed his resentment, making him vow that one day, no man would call him slave. He hungered for a life where others would look upon him with respect instead of disdain.
He'd spent time training among the finest warriors in Eireann, intending to leave the tribe and become a mercenary. Better to lead a nomadic life on his own terms than to live like this. But then Carice had fallen ill. He'd delayed his plans to leave, for her sake, after she'd begged him not to go. Were it not for her, he'd have disappeared long ago. She was the only family he had left, and he knew her life was slipping away. For that reason, he had sworn to remain with her until the end.
The chieftain leaned over to one of the guards, undoubtedly giving the order to throw Killian out. Within moments, his friend Seorse crossed the Great Chamber, regret upon his face. 'You know you cannot come inside without orders, Killian.'
'Of course not.' He was supposed to remain outside in the pouring rain, amid the mud and the animal dung. Brian refused to let him be a part of their tribenot in any way. He was expected to work in the stables, obeying all commands given to him.
This time, Killian crossed his arms and stood his ground. 'Will you be the one to throw me out?' His voice held the edge of ice, for he was weary of being treated like the bastard he was. Frustration clenched in his gut, and he didn't move.
'Don't start a fight,' Seorse warned. 'Take shelter in the tower if you must, but don't cause more trouble. I'll bring you food later.'
Killian gave a thin smile. 'Do you think I care about causing trouble?' He enjoyed fighting, and he'd earned his place among the men as one of the best warriors. Beneath his fur-lined tunic, he wore chain-mail armour that he'd taken from a dead Norse invader during a raid. He had no sword of his own, but he knew how to use his fists and had broken a few bones over the years. Every time he won a match or bested a clansman, it was a thorn in Brian's side.
Seorse dropped his voice low. 'Why are you here, Killian?'
'Carice sent for me.'
His friend shook his head. 'She's worse today. I don't think she can leave her chamber. She was sick most of the night, and she can hardly eat anything.'
A tightness filled up Killian's chest. It bothered him to see her starving to death before his eyes, unable to tolerate any food at all. The healer had ordered Carice to eat only bread and the plainest of foods, to keep her stomach calm. But nothing seemed to work. 'Take me to her.'
'I cannot, and you know this. Brian ordered me to escort you outside.'
He wasn't about to leavenot yet. But as he moved towards the entrance, he glanced behind him and saw a hint of motion near the stairs. Brian's attention was elsewhere, so Killian hastened up the spiral steps. Seorse sent him a warning look, but his silent message was clear. He would not let Brian know that Killian was still here.
Carice was struggling to walk down the stairs. Her skin was the colour of snow, and she held on to her maid's shoulder, touching the opposite wall for support. Instantly, Killian went to the stairs and offered his arm. 'Do you need help, my lady?'
'Call me that again, and I shall bloody your nose, Killian.' Her dark brown hair was bound back from her face, and her blue eyes held warmth. She was far too thin, and he could see the bones in her wrists. But her spirit was as fiery as ever.
'You should not have left your room, Carice.' He moved up the spiral stairs, and she gestured for her maid to go.
'I'll sit here a moment and talk with you,' she said. 'Then you can carry me back to bed afterwards.'
'You're too ill,' he argued. 'You need to go back now.'
She shook her head and raised a hand. 'Let me speak. This is important.'
He climbed a few more of the stairs to reach her side. Carice sat down, steadying herself. 'Father shouldn't treat you this way. You are my brother, and always have been, even if we do not share the same parents.' She reached out her hand and squeezed his palm. In so many ways, she reminded him of his mother. Gentle and strong-willed, she'd made it her task to take care of him. 'You deserve a better life than this, Killian. It was wrong of me to ask you to stay.'
He didn't deny it, but he knew that once he left, he would never return to Carrickmeath. 'One day I'll go. Perhaps when you are married and are no longer fighting my battles for me.'
She drew back, her face serious. 'I'm not going to marry anyone, Killian. This winter is my last. I may not live until the summer.'
Uneasiness passed over him, for her proclamation wasn't a jest. Each season grew harder on her, and it was only a matter of time before she lost her fragile grasp on life. Though her body was weak, her inner strength rivalled a warrior queen's.
'Father doesn't believe me. He thinks I'm going to get well and wed the High King, becoming Queen of Eireann. But he is wrong. And so I have taken matters into my own hands.'
'What do you mean?' She wasn't planning to take her own life, was she?
'I will not marry Rory 0 Connor,' she said. 'I have made arrangements to leave this place.' Her face softened, and she admitted, 'Father has been delaying my journey to Tara for my marriage. He's told the High King of my illness, but soon enough, the King's men will come for me. And I will not have my last moments be shadowed by marriage to such a man.' She reached out and smoothed his hair. 'I know Rory is your father, but I am glad you are nothing like him.'
'I will never be like him.' The stories of the High King's ruthless actions were well known. Rory had plundered and burned the lands of Strabane and Derry, even ordering his own brother to be blinded, in order to seize possession of the throne. It was one of many reasons why no one dared to stand against him.
'In one way, you will.' Carice's hand rested upon his cheek. 'You have the blood of the High King within your veins. You are destined to rule over your own lands.'
While he wanted to believe that, he didn't know if he would ever overcome his low birth. Men respected his fighting skills and his strategies, but he needed far more than that to win a place for himself.
'I am a bastard,' he pointed out, 'and the Ard-Righ will never acknowledge me as his son.' It was well known that the High King had sired dozens of bastard children, and he had little interest in them. Brian had travelled to visit Rory, hoping to receive compensation for Killian's fostering, but the King had been away, and his retainers had refused to grant anything. During those years, Rory had been King of Connacht, before he became High King of Eireann.
'That could change,' she argued. 'And I know you will fight for the life you want. Just as I will fight for the death I want.'
The words were chilling, for Carice was the one good part of his life. Her quiet spirit and kindness had helped him to push back his hatred of Brian. Without her, there was no one to fight for.
'Carice, don't,' he said, not wanting to speak of it. 'You cannot give up.'
She ignored him and continued. 'I have asked the MacEgan tribe for help. Someone will come and take me to our holdings in the west. I ask that you help me to leave. Do not let Father's men stop me.' Though her face remained strong, he caught the rise of tears in her eyes. 'If I stay, I will have to marry the High King. And I do not wish to endure that wedding night.'
She took a slow breath, her hands trembling. 'Help me escape, Killian. You're strong enough to fight this battle.'
He bowed his head, knowing that it was peace she wanted. And so he gave a vow he knew he could keep. 'I swear, on my life, that I will never let you wed King Rory.'
Her shoulders lowered with relief, and she touched his hair, resting her forehead against his. 'Thank you. I cannot say when I will leave, but one day soon, I will be gone. I know Father's men will search for me, but keep them searching to the north instead. Tell them I went to visit friends, if you wish. The MacEgans will protect me with other false stories, if needed.'
'So be it.'
She leaned against the wall, and he suspected she had not the strength to return to her bed. 'You are the brother of my heart, Killian, no matter what my father says. I pray that one day you realise how worthy you are.'
He reached out to lift her into his arms. 'I'm taking you back to your chamber. Rest, and trust that I will keep you safe.'
Taryn Connelly had never rescued a captive before. She knew nothing at all about how to infiltrate the High King's fortress at Tara and steal a prisoner away, but her father's time was running out. If she didn't organise soldiers to save him, his life would be forfeit. But finding warriors was proving to be a problem.
Her father, King Devlin, had been a good man and a strong ruler. But the last group of men who had gone to rescue her father had all been returned to Ossoriawithout their heads. She shuddered at the memory. King Rory had made it clear that he was not going to release his prisoner.
Her mother, Queen Maeve, had insisted that the remaining soldiers stay behind to guard their province, and they were all too glad to obey.
Taryn refused to leave Devlin there to die. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right. Someone had to save him. And though she wasn't strong enough to lead men into battle, she could find a warrior who was.
A sudden rise of nerves caught in her stomach, for she had never left Ossoria before. For so many years, she had remained hidden away, so that no one would look upon her scarred face. Her father had warned that others would scorn her for the physical imperfections if she dared to leave. But now, she had no alternative. Given the choice between facing a jeering crowd and saving his life, she would set aside her fear and risk everything.
Her mother opened the door to Taryn's chamber, staring at the open trunk of Taryn's belongings. Inside lay not only fine gowns, but a box filled with gold pieces, silver chalices, and a small bag of pearls.
'You cannot save him, Taryn,' Maeve said. 'You saw what happened to the last group of soldiers who went to the High King.'
'If you were in his place, would you want us to go about our lives, not even trying to bring you home?' she countered. 'He's my father, not a traitor.'
She was certain of that. Devlin had answered a summons, only to be taken by the King's men and bound in chains. And whatever the reason, Taryn intended to bring him home. 'I will not turn my back on him.'
Her mother was silent, her expression tight. Around her throat she wore a gold torque set with rubies, while her long red hair fell to her waist. 'I know you believe Devlin was a good father. He tried very hard to make you think well of him.' Her voice was calm, but it held the unmistakable edge of loathing.
Taryn tensed, for she'd known that her parents' marriage had never been a happy one. Her mother had miscarried many children over the years, and it shadowed her moods at all times. She controlled every moment of each day and kept the servants at her beck and call. Those who disobeyed were punished for any infraction.
Maeve sighed and paced across the room. 'I am sorry, but you cannot go to Tara. And you may not send more of my soldiers on Devlin's behalf.'
My soldiers? Taryn bristled at that. As if she'd already given up on her husband?
'They are still Father's men, too,' Taryn corrected.
But Maeve's face turned cool. She walked to stand at the window and said, 'I have not, nor will I, give permission for you to take soldiers against King Rory. Every last man of them would be killed, including yourself. And I am not a woman who sends others to die needlessly.'
Not even for your husband? Taryn wanted to ask, but didn't.
'I do not intend to take an army,' she told Maeve quietly. 'I go only to plead for Father's life. Surely there is no harm in appealing to King Rory. I am no threat to the High King.'
'You will not leave,' Maeve said. 'And that is final.' Her gaze swept over Taryn. 'The Ard-Righ will not listen to anything you have to say.' She reached out to touch Taryn's scarred cheek. 'And unlike other women, you cannot use your looks to win his attention, I fear.' Her mother's touch burned into her skin like a brand.
Taryn knew she would never be beautiful, and she would bear the disfigurement of her face and hands forever. But to hear it from her mother was a blow she hadn't expected. She stepped backwards, lowering her gaze to the floor. 'I do not want King Rory's attention.'
Far from it. She knew she had a face that made men shudder, and she was too tall. Her hair was black instead of her mother's fiery colour. They shared the same eyes, however. More than once, Taryn had wished that she did not have to see those icy blue eyes staring back at her in a reflection.
Sometimes she wished that her mother had been taken captive, instead of her father. Maeve never seemed to care about anyone but herself. And it hurt to imagine Devlin in chains, suffering torture.