Highland Avenger Excerpt

Book 3 > Renegade Scots

Tyndrum, Scotland
September 1306

Thousands of horses’ hooves pounded against hard dirt, filling the thick misty air of Grant Fraser’s escape route with the deafening sound of betrayal. His breath lodged in his chest as he pulled up sharply on the reins of his galloping destrier in the same moment that his elder brother Simon, who was riding beside him, did the same. They came to a halt, their horses neighing, dust swirling up around them.

What was left of his comrades, the newly crowned King of Scots’s warriors, rode close behind them. Fear rolled off the group. He understood it. He felt it as well, but he could not, would not allow fear to consume or defeat him. He had to not only shield his king but also aid Simon in protecting their younger brother, Thomas, who rode behind them alongside his best friend, Allisdair MacLorh. Just thinking about those two young fools and how they’d ridden to the battle of Tyndrum, despite being ordered not to by everyone but the king, made Grant clench his teeth until pain danced across his jaw.

He tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword. The motion caused the dried blood to crack over his knuckles. He had felled the English knights not long ago.

“We’ve been deceived,” Simon growled.

“Aye,” Grant agreed, his chest tightening with a mixture of anger and worry. “Ye ken it’s the MacDougalls.” The powerful Highland clan, who shared his clan’s border, had said they would support Robert the Bruce as the king, but they had lied. They’d ridden this day against Bruce and his followers, which included Simon and Grant.

“I ken it,” Simon said as he withdrew his sword, a savage look twisting his features. “After we survive this, I’m going to hunt down the MacDougall and rip out his black heart with my bare hands.”

Grant nodded, and they both spat toward the ground. They had no respect for liars and turncoats, and this day, Laird MacDougall had proven to be both. “I’ll be by yer side to help ye, Brother. I vow it.”

Simon clasped Grant’s arm, and a swell of emotion tightened Grant’s throat. “Bruce approaches,” Simon said. “We must act quickly.”

Grant looked behind him to where the king fast approached with his young wife by his side. Three bloodied, battered Scots rode in front of Bruce and Elizabeth, and three more rode behind, as well as the two foolish pups who should not have come here and put themselves in the middle of the danger. Every warrior was armed and prepared to give his life to save that of his new king’s. Now, weapons even weighted Thomas and Allisdair, as Bruce had knighted them before the battle. Bruce represented the Scottish people’s greatest hope to defeat the tyrannical King Edward of England, who wished to subjugate them with an unmerciful iron fist.

Urgency tensed Grant’s muscles. He glanced swiftly to his left to the steep impenetrable rocks of the mountain. They’d find no escape there. To the right, then. One look down the plunging cliffside was all it took to understand they would not all make it. But most of them could escape, and he’d give his own life to ensure Simon and Thomas lived. A nearby ridge looked close enough to the ledge that would lead to slanting, scalable rock and freedom. Those who made their way down the mountainside could jump to it. Someone would have to drive the horses back toward the scene of the last battle so the approaching Englishmen would follow the decoy while the king, his wife, and the other warriors escaped, ferreting Bruce to safety. Then they could gather new allies and take down Edward.

Grant jerked his rope out of his sporran and jumped off his horse.

“Grant, what are ye…” Simon’s voice trailed off as Grant held up the rope and pointed at the ledge, then looked to the king, the queen, and what was left of the king’s army.

“Grant Fraser, I could kiss ye,” Ross MacLorh said, dismounting his horse.

Grant winked at his friend. “I’ll thank ye nae to. If I die today, I dunnae want the lips of a big, burly Scot to be the last I recall.”

Tense laughter rippled around the group as the rest of the party dismounted. The king stepped toward Grant and clasped him on the shoulder. “What do ye intend to do with the rope?”

“I’ll lower each of ye down to the ledge and then drop the rope to ye, Sire,” Grant explained. “I’ll remain to drive the horses back the way we came and ensure the English think they are following all of us.”

Even as the king nodded, Simon said, “Nay,” his unyielding green gaze locking on Grant. “Ye’ll go with the king and the others, and I’ll lead the horses.”

“The devil ye will,” Grant protested. “I’m staying, and ye’re going. Ye’re laird of our clan. Ye must leave.”

Ross snatched the rope out of Grant’s hand. “We will all die this day if ye two stand here bickering.”

“Bruce.” Ross waved at the king. “Come. Ye must go first.”

“Take Elizabeth before me,” the king said, his voice like steel.

The queen opened her mouth to protest, but Bruce silenced her with a kiss. He cupped her cheeks and whispered something in her ear, to which she nodded and then turned to Ross. “I put my life in yer hands, Ross.”

“They’re steady hands, my queen,” he vowed.

As Ross slipped the rope around the queen’s waist, Grant faced Simon once more. “I’m staying. The rope is mine. The idea was mine. Ye and Thomas must flee.” This was his moment of restitution for failing to always be there for Simon, as they had vowed long ago as boys they always would be after their parents had died, and only the four siblings had remained.

Simon slipped his hand to the back of Grant’s neck and gripped it, bringing them so close that their foreheads touched. “I’m yer laird,” his brother said, the intensity of his tone humming in Grant’s ear like a thousand swarming bees. “Ye will do as I say.”

“Nay,” Grant argued. “Ye will be outnumbered.” He did not state the obvious that whoever stayed had little chance of living.

“Aye.” Simon nodded and squeezed Grant’s neck. “But ye ken these mountains better than any man here, myself included. The king has a better chance of escaping with ye leading the party, as does Thomas.”

Damn his brother for being right. The desire to deny the truth clawed at Grant, making him feel as if someone slashed at his innards with a jagged dagger. If he refused, Simon would simply argue, and Grant once again would have failed to trust his elder brother, his laird, as he had done in the past when he’d believed Simon a turncoat for the English. After they had been reunited and he had learned that Simon had been working as a spy in King Edward’s court and had not really abandoned the Scottish cause, Grant had vowed that he would never doubt his brother again.

Grant looked over his shoulder to where the king was being lowered to his queen. “I’ll lead them to the pass.” Simon’s exhalation of obvious relief nearly caused Grant to recant his words. His brother expected to die. That’s why he wished to be the one to stay and not let Grant. Grant would die for Simon, just as Simon would him. “I’ll be returning for ye,” he said and glared at Simon when he opened his mouth to protest. “Ross kens the route from the pass as well as I do.”

“Aye, I do,” Ross confirmed.

Grant gripped Simon by the shoulder. “Dunnae get yerself killed before I come back for ye.”

Simon offered a smile. “Dunnae get yerself killed trying to save me.”

Grant jerked his elder brother into an embrace. “I kinnae think of a better way to die than giving my life for ye, Brother.”

Simon nodded. “Same here, Brother.”

They broke apart, and Grant made quick work of lowering Ross, the only one remaining, to the ledge. He then slipped the rope around his own waist and gave Simon one last look as his brother braced himself, feet apart, ready to lower Grant.

“I’ll see ye soon,” Grant assured him. “And then we will hunt down Laird MacDougall together and kill him for betraying us.”

“I’ll hold ye to that promise,” Simon said.

When Grant reached the ledge, he looked up, expecting to see Simon, but the rope came flying toward him, and then shouted commands from Simon to the horses to retreat came from above Grant.

He maneuvered to the front of the party and waved them onward. “We’ll move fast. Watch yer step and stay close.” He had to get the king and the others to safety, and then return to aid his brother. He’d not prayed since the day he’d learned his mother had been taken by their enemies, but as he scaled the rocks, he began to plead to God to shield

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