Her Highland Beast – Madeline Martin

DUNCAN MACLEAN HAD FOLLOWED the scream. He lifted the dark-haired child from where she lay beside the dead soldier. Evidently he had died protecting her, the bandits having run off when she screamed. No doubt they’d heard Duncan approach. Mayhap they’d seen him and fled in fear. At fifteen, he was already larger than most men. Stronger, even. The sun waned with the threat of the night drawing near. Regret niggled at him. He shouldn’t have left his mother and her lady’s maid alone. It had been foolish. Only he’d assumed the scream had come from a maiden in need of saving. He had rushed to the sound, eager to cut his teeth of his battle skills in an act of defending a great beauty from a horrid beast. Alas, there had been no maiden. Only a young girl who might soon die.

Aye, of course, he was glad he’d saved her, but the act would yield no grateful lover. A curl of smoke showed in the distance, its peaty scent trailing in the air. Duncan carried the chit until a small monastery came into view. The girl’s shins jutted out beneath the grimy blue dress she wore, but her body was slight. He assumed her to be at least five years his junior. The monks would know what to do with her, for certainly he did not. He lay her in front of the door and hesitated. Her glossy black hair splayed out over the leaves and called to attention how very pale she was. She was so small. Helpless.

What if they cast her out? Did she have anywhere to go? Without thinking, Duncan tugged the heavy ruby ring from his hand and put it on her finger. It gaped around the tiny digit like a golden halo. If nothing else, she would have payment – whether for the monks, or for food. He rapped hard upon the door, then ran in the direction where he’d left his mother and the old witch she kept as her lady’s maid. Despite his fast pace, the hunt for his mother took longer than expected. Clearly he had wandered farther from them than he realized. Finally, the babble of the rushing stream met his ears. The rest of the forest was still. Too still. A coppery odor caught the breeze and the hair on his arms stood on end.

A moan came from behind the brush, low and grating. Duncan’s heart pumped harder, leaving him more breathless than the run. He drew his blade, ready to slay any foe nearby. And he could slay any man. He knew as much in his soul. He crashed through the trees, and stopped. His mother lay strewn on the ground, unmoving. A brilliant red stain spread over her chest and glistened in the fading light. Blood. His throat clenched around his heart and a choked cry emerged from his lips.

He went to his mother and fell to his knees at her side. The witch lay several feet away, curled into a pain he could not see in the folds of her dark cloak. She lifted a blood smeared hand and pointed at him. “Ye killed us.” Her eyes narrowed into black slits. “With yer youthful arrogance.” His mother twitched and gave a garbled choke that made him wince. He leaned over her, wanting to touch her, to comfort her as she’d always comforted him. But where to touch her without causing pain? “Mother.” The word strained against his tight throat and made his eyes tingle with warmth.

Her closed lids did not open and he found himself desperate to peer into the blue, loving gaze he’d known his whole life. Lines etched her mouth as if she were attempting to clench in her suffering. “Ye left us.” The witch grunted, but he did not look away from his mother. “We were robbed and left for dead while ye played the part of a hero. Our deaths will haunt ye. Our deaths will be yer end.” His mother caught Duncan’s hand in a grip as firm as his da’s and stared up at him wide-eyed. “Nay,” she grated. Her fingers were like ice.

“I curse ye, Duncan Maclean.” The witch’s voice shook with vehemence. “Ye’ll live twice yer life, for another fifteen years with the burden of what ye’ve done. With the knowledge that on yer 30th birthday, ye will die.” A chill jolted down Duncan’s spine. A curse was no thing to be taken lightly. But he did not turn from his dying parent. “Nay,” His mother said with more force. “My child.” She licked her dry lips.

“My son.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Duncan shook his head. He meant to tell her not to talk, to save her strength, but found he could not speak himself. Not around the hard lump lodged in his throat. He mutely shook his head in desperation. Her brows pursed together and her eyes clamped closed. “Spare—” She winced. “Spare my son.” A soft exhale fled her body and the grimace of agony pinching her lovely features relaxed.

All of her relaxed. And all of Duncan tightened. With grief and rage and fear. His mother, the woman who had borne him and loved him and trusted him to ensure her safety— was dead. Because of him. He roared in anguish. The power of it tore the knot from his throat and left it ragged with raw pain. When at last his torment ceased to ring out, only the rasping breath of the dying lady’s maid remained. Finally, he shifted his attention to her and found her staring at his mother. Blue veins stood out like rivers against the sorceress’s thin, wet lids of her eyes.

When she cut her gaze to Duncan, there was no color within – only an empty white. “Yer spell can be broken, but only by the love of a daughter of Morrigan.” The bag the old woman had carried shuddered and a rusty spearhead lifted, unaided, from the folded leather. “Only she will be cut by the Spear of Assal, but ye’ll have to add the safety of twelve mattresses between the spear and her.” Duncan shook his head, not understanding. The spearhead hovered in the air. “Take it, ye wretch,” the old woman snarled. Duncan grabbed it with numb fingers. The metal sat heavy and hot in his hand. Her teeth had gone red with blood and a stream of it trailed from the corner of her mouth.

“A daughter of Morrigan must love ye before the rowan tree is left bare.” The wide white eyes remained unblinking. “If ye canna find such love, and the last leaf falls on yer thirtieth year of life, ye will perish.” Her eyes dimmed from white to empty black and she dropped, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. The rattle of her struggled breathing ceased, leaving only the heavy silence of death and curses. Duncan looked down at the spearhead in his hand. The thing was rusted, pitted with holes, and its edges worn smooth. It wouldn’t scratch a babe. He jammed it in his sporran and set to bringing his mother home for burial. The accursed witch could stay where she lay, and taint the dirt with her hatred.

He put the curse from his mind, and focused instead on the love he’d held for his mother as he trudged the last miles home. He recalled her laugh, her smiles, the gentle hugs and the wonderful floral perfume of her surrounding him and making his world right. All of it would be lost to him forever. Even with her dying breath, she had sought to save his life. He’d thrown everything away to save a foolish girl. Anger lit his soul with the desire to avenge his mother’s death. He clung to the memory of the girl he’d saved, the one he’d imprudently given his father’s ring to in an act of soft-hearted pity. He crested the final hill to his home and managed to hold his mother to his chest as he fell to his knees. There, beside the magnificence of Duart, standing as tall as the castle itself, was a newly grown rowan tree, bright with waxy green leaves and berries the color of blood. He gently set his mother down, and went to the tree on legs almost too weak to carry him.

To his horror, one leaf fell from a branch too high for him to see. The leaf floated down softly, like a feather caught on a light breeze, taunting him with his own mortality. It landed in his palm and promptly withered to ash. And so it would go for the next fifteen years. Unless, of course, he found a true daughter of Morrigan and made her fall in love with him. He’d have no problem wooing any woman, of that he was certain. Already he’d had many women, many prospects for a wife. But where did one find the daughter of a goddess? As if in answer, another leaf loosed and fell, bringing with it all of Duncan’s hopes. He watched it in horror, unable to move from the weighted certainty of his impending death. CHAPTER 1 January 1375 Isle of Mull, Scotland EVINA MACGREGOR’S companions were all dead.

Mercenaries lost in a battle they had no claim to aside from the weight of winner’s coin at their belt. Yet Evina had survived. Again. The wind clawed at her, ripping her cloak open to thrust icy fingers into the heat she attempted to preserve in the huddle of her crossed arms. She staggered on through the snow on feet she could no longer feel. There would be no frostbite later. Just like there’d been no wounds sustained in the battle – or the one before that, or any others she’d fought. She could not be harmed. It was an uncanny skill for a woman who wished for nothing more than to die. Evina wanted to curl into the embrace of a snowbank, to let her stiff limbs cease their tremble with the false promise of warmth while winter stole her life from the shell of her body.

And then she would be no more. She would be free of the burden of loss, of her internal scream of desire to learn who she was. What she was. For surely abilities such as hers rendered her unnatural. The wild snow storm blew in a frantic swirl of chipped ice. The flurries bit at her cheeks and stung her eyes. She felt the pain of it to be sure, but never to the point of physical injury. Many would consider her lucky for her immunity to damage and death. But she was not lucky. She was damned.

Condemned to a wandering life of loneliness and suffering. Her steps slowed with the temptation to lay in the snowbank. But the flame of life within her blazed brighter and shoved her onward, the same as it always did when death beckoned. It drove her away where others were unintentionally drawn. She trudged on, hating the endless life she lived. Her ravenous stomach gnawed on nothing. Yet no beast alive was out in such a storm to hunt. The scent of roasting meat enveloped her and turned the ache of her hunger into something unbearably savage. She caught sight of a puff of smoke in the distance. It was whisked away as soon as the cloud billowed from the chimney, still easily made out with her sharp eyes.

A sign to follow to civilization where there would be food and warmth and the possibility of another job to sustain her another few months. The wind shrieked and tore at her, as if it’d come to life in an attempt to keep her from getting nearer. She faced the squall and roared back, being far more terrible a foe than anything it would ever encounter. Her muscles burned, yet she pushed on and on and on until all at once, the storm stopped. She froze in bewildered shock at the absence of the slicing wind. The chill of her limbs warmed in the blaze of golden sunlight. She blinked against its brightness and put her hands up to shield its assault. There, in the shade of her palm stood a mighty rowan tree, its thin smattering of leaves as lush green as summer, its berries clustered in brilliant red. A castle stretched beside the tree, nearly the same height. Bits of snow clung to its sides as the storm howled and raged against the stone.

The tempest clearly did not leave the castle untouched, merely the garden. The moist scent of sun-warmed earth surrounded her. Evina spun in a circle, taking in the cone of light she found herself in. The grass underfoot was a deep, healthy green, thick and sweet-smelling with a line of snow only a foot beyond. It was as if this one piece of earth was left in summer while the remainder of the world continued on with winter. White walls of billowing snow framed the garden, and at its center: the rowan tree. What magic was this? She edged closer to the tree, cautious. Awareness crackled through her, ready to detect a trap. Nothing. She stopped under the tree and looked up the length of its massive trunk.

The leaves grew sparse in contrast to the berries, which grew in hearty clumps and cast the tree in a red hue. Evina shoved up her sleeves and reached for a nearby mass of berries. A pleasant tingling swept over her skin, as if she’d dipped into the magic. The enchantment imbued in such a creation was powerful indeed to overwhelm a rowan tree. She’d always known them to be immune to magic, which was why they were favored by the druids of old. Her fingertips brushed the hard berries. The shook slightly and fell one by one to the ground like drops of blood. She stepped back and regarded them where they lay against the tender green grass. She held her breath and waited. For hell to rain down, for the world to open up and swallow her, for demons to streak from the sky, for whatever charm to do its nefarious task.

Nothing happened. She glanced up at the castle. Surely the enchantment had to do with it. And with the option of the storm outside or the unknown, she’d take her chances with what lay within the castle, be it man or beast. DUNCAN OBSERVED the tree from the uppermost tower, unable to pull his gaze from its leaves. “Laird, ye’ll no’ ever find a lass to break the curse if ye dinna leave the castle.” Duncan shifted from the window to where Gillespie held out a proffered goblet. Duncan waved it away irritably. The conversation was one they’d had several times over the last fourteen years. One with a resolution that never concluded.

Duncan remained inside, and Gillespie continued to needle him. It was the tree. The damn tree. Duncan’s back tensed at the very thought. He couldn’t bear to leave the rowan tree. Leaves could fall and he would not see them. His feet had become rooted to the spot at the windows on the western side of the castle. He stared vigilantly day after day, sleeping only in bits and snatches while he ticked off each moment of his life that fell from the gnarled branches. If he left, the lot of them might fall. Or someone might happen upon it and pluck branches bare.

A shudder prickled down his spine. Movement. Out of the corner of Duncan’s eye. He pressed to the window as another bit of his life released from the tree and floated downward. His mortality passed thus, one leaf at a time. Helpless, he could only bear witness to every one of them, like grains of sand slipping between his fingers. “Watching the tree willna stop it,” Gillespie said again. “Go out there. Even if ye dinna find a daughter of Morrigan, ye will at least live.” Far below, something else moved.

Duncan put up a hand to silence his wayward servant. His heart thumped hard. A person. Near his tree. Mindless rage seared his veins and his vision went red. He darted from the room without bothering to answer Gillespie and raced down the steps, taking them two at a time with his giant stride. He did not stop until he burst from the rear door leading to the garden. The man stood facing away from Duncan, hand outstretched. There was a bow slung over the stranger’s heavy cape. It would do him no good.

Duncan launched himself at the intruder, but did not reach him in time to stop him from plucking a single remaining leaf from the now bare branch. Duncan bellowed in outrage and slammed into the solid figure. The man flew across the garden from the impact and landed beside the thick trunk of the rowan tree. Without giving him a chance to recover, Duncan leapt onto him and drew an arm back to render his opponent senseless. Or preferably dead. He stopped abruptly, his hand held aloft. It was no man who glared up at him. It was a woman. An angry woman. Her steely gaze clashed with his.

“Get off me or ye’ll pay with yer life.”

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