Book 3 > Highlander Vows
Loch Awe, Scotland
A chapel was supposed to be a place of sanctuary for Isobel Campbell, but she had a bad feeling that something was very wrong. At first glance, Innis Chonnell Castle, her father’s home, had appeared inviting. She had never lived there before, but with the crackling fire, fresh rushes underfoot, bright tapestries hanging on the walls, and warm glow cast over the tiny room, the chapel seemed like a haven. It was contrary in nearly every way from the cold, drab nunnery she’d grown up in, except one—both places were filled with liars. She was as sure of that fact as she was that a storm was coming.
Dampness clung to the heavy air, and it pressed on her like a thick cloak. The sweet pungency of the coming rain filled her nose with every inhalation, and her skin tingled from a strange current in the air. She knew the signs of a storm brewing because her father had taught them to her during one of his yearly birthday visits. He had left her in the protection of the sisters at Iona Nunnery when she was barely a week old, but he never missed her birthday.
Deceitful people were harder to recognize than an impending storm, of course, but in her years living with the nuns, she’d learned that if you spent enough time around people who were attempting to mislead you, eventually they would forget to put their masks on. Only then could you see the ugly truth they’d been striving to hide. It could take a great deal of time, though. Sometimes years, as it had with Sister Beatrice.
Isobel rubbed her fingers over the rough scars on her knuckles. Every time Sister Beatrice had thrashed her until her hands were bleeding, the woman had claimed that she punished Isobel because she loved her. Isobel clenched her teeth with the memory of the lie. The nun had loved the power the punishment had given her, and that was all.
Isobel stole a quick glance at the corner of the chapel where Jean, her stepmother—whom she had only met mere hours earlier—stood with a priest. Jean caught Isobel’s gaze and glared at her with hostile eyes.
“What are ye gaping at?” Jean snarled.
A liar, Isobel thought, but she simply pressed her lips together and shook her head. Jean snorted in disgust, then resumed her frenzied whispering to the priest. Unease danced along Isobel’s skin, along with the certainty that there was no time to peel back the disguises of the strangers surrounding her.
Many times had she imagined the day she would reach eighteen summers. Those dreams had nothing to do with the fact that she would then be the heiress of Brigid Castle and everything to do with the fact that when she turned eighteen her father would finally take her home with him instead of leaving her at Iona as he did after every other visit. She cared naught for the power Brigid brought her as key to the Scottish Isles; she cared only to be with her father and her half brothers, Findlay and Colin.
When she had dreamed of her eighteenth birthday, her father and brothers came to the nunnery as they always did, and such happiness filled her to see those she loved so dearly. But her dream differed from reality in that when they departed at the end of the day on her eighteenth birthday, she was not left standing alone watching them ride off together, her chest aching with loneliness and longing to go with them. But her dream had not come true as she had thought it would. While she had left Iona Nunnery on her eighteenth birthday, she was not with her father and brothers.
Listening to the low murmurs around her, Isobel touched the perfectly circular black onyx stone her father had given her on her seventh birthday. It had been her mother’s necklace, and when she had died in childbirth, Father had taken it and kept it with him always until he had gifted it to Isobel. This stone had given her strength in her darkest hours at the nunnery. It had always reminded her that she was not alone, that she had a father and brothers who loved her, and that one day they would be together. When that time came, she would also finally meet her sisters.
She bit down on her trembling lips. She was now the Brigid heiress. No more was she to be kept safe from those who might try to seize her and bind her in marriage. She had never understood all the terms of her inheritance from her grandmother, but she did remember Father saying she would not inherit the castle if she was wed before she was eighteen. Father had also vowed that on the day she turned eighteen, he and her brothers would personally come for her and bring her home.
Isobel shivered, not from the draft in the chapel but from fear. Her father had not come. Her brothers had not come. Strangers had plucked her from her bed and forced her to ride through day and night, then the next day and night. They had claimed it was at her father’s request. They had claimed it was by his bidding. But they had lied. They had brought her to the home she had often dreamed of living in, but neither her father nor her brothers were there. Deception floated in the air.
Her heartbeat tripled its pace as her stepmother stopped whispering furiously to the priest and they both looked at her. Isobel pressed a damp palm to the gown her father had given her as a birthday gift the year before. Father had told her then that she must always be strong and courageous, just as he’d had to be when he brought her to the nunnery and sacrificed his own personal desire to have her live with him so that he could keep her safe. She had vowed to him that she would be, and she would not break that vow now.
She took a deep breath just as the chapel door creaked open and a tall man filled the doorway. A hard knot of dread formed in her belly as she studied the man. His hair was black as a starless night, and his lips twisted in a way that reminded Isobel of how Sister Beatrice’s lips always turned down in a grimace. But it was his gray, flat eyes that made Isobel’s stomach clench. There was no light of life in his eyes, only a coldness that made him appear devoid of emotion.
The man strode into the room with hard steps, and suspicion swirled within her. Whoever this man was, he commanded respect, or mayhap fear, given the tight faces of the others in the chapel. He came to stand directly in front of her, towering over her so that she took an involuntary step back, only to be shoved forward by Jean as she walked up to Isobel’s side.
Isobel tensed as Jean moved closer and speared her with a frosty look. “Isobel, this is Lord Jamie MacLeod. He is the man ye will marry this night.”
Isobel’s lips parted. MacLeod? She swept her gaze over the foreboding man who carried the name of the clan that was her father’s greatest foe. Once the shock of a MacLeod standing in front of her sank in, another swept over her. Marry? Had Jean truly said Isobel was to marry this man? And this night? She went rigid. Her father, laird of the Campbell clan, would never agree to marry her to a MacLeod and into the clan that had stolen from him.
Liars! She was surrounded by enemies. Jean may be her stepmother and these men may be her father’s, but something was amiss. She could feel it in her bones. She did not know Jean. She did not know her father’s men. She did not even know the woman hovering in the corner with watchful eyes, the one who Isobel had been told was her half sister.
What she did know with undeniable truth was that her father hated the MacLeods and would never bind her in marriage to them.
Tilting up her chin and choosing her words with care, she said, “I’ll nae marry anyone without speaking to my father. I must ken his desires.” It was best to leave the rest of her feelings unsaid. Her father would understand that she wished to marry an honorable man like him, one whom she loved and who loved her, just as her father had loved her mother.
“This is his wish,” Jean said in a voice that did not display a hint of warmth or yielding.
Isobel pressed her lips together. “So ye say,” she responded. “But I’d hear it from my father’s own mouth. I must marry wisely.”
And not to a hated enemy.
Jean snorted. “Ye fool. Nae a body present dunnae ken the importance of the choice of husband for ye, as he will rule Brigid Castle.”
Isobel sucked in a sharp breath. She was no fool! She knew the man she married one day would hold her castle, yet that was secondary in her mind. If she married for love and the man was honorable, fierce, and loyal to the Campbells, then Brigid Castle would be in excellent hands.
Beside Jean, Lord MacLeod shifted, drawing Isobel’s attention. He narrowed his eyes upon her. “Did they nae teach ye proper obedience at the nunnery?” he snarled. “Ye will marry as yer stepmother has bid, or ye will learn what it means to attempt to defy me.” His hand curled into a fist.
Isobel’s thoughts spun in her head as she stared at the fresh, jagged, red cut running from his right eye to his lip. Had he received that in battle with warriors, or had he received the wound from some poor woman who had been trying to protect herself from him? Isobel swept her gaze around the room, seeing only fear. She’d find no aid from anyone in this room. She had no notion what her stepmother was up to, but Isobel could not believe that the father she knew would marry her to a man without at least telling her himself.
Beyond that, she knew her father would not marry her to a man who threatened to beat her. She had to think no further than the memory of Sister Beatrice, whom he’d sent from the nunnery after learning of her abuse toward Isobel. She’d been afraid to tell him for many years, as Sister Beatrice had sworn it was Isobel’s penance for being sinful, but when she had turned eight and her father had visited, he had seen the fresh cuts and Isobel had divulged the truth. Sister Beatrice had been sent away that very day. Father was her greatest defender. No, it could not be his wish for her to marry this man.
Mayhap her stepmother was trying to make an allegiance with this MacLeod to thwart Father somehow. Isobel did not know. What she did understand was that Father had told her time and again to trust only him and her half brothers because all others would attempt to use her.
She stiffened her spine and notched up her chin. “I will nae agree to marry this night.”
A low growl came from Lord MacLeod. Out of the corner of her eye, Isobel saw the priest cross himself, and the hairs on the back of her neck prickled.
Lord MacLeod clutched her arm in an unforgiving vise. “It will bring me great pleasure to gain yer agreement, Isobel.”
Fear raced across her skin as he squeezed her arm with such force that she had to bite her cheek to keep from whimpering. She glanced toward the window and out at the dark night. She swallowed hard. Bad things happened at night. Her mother had died at night. Her father had always departed from their visits when the sky was black. Colin, her oldest and favorite brother, had told her on his most recent visit with Father that the MacLeods had defeated them in an important battle on a night when the moon had refused to shine.
Her heart pounded as she scanned the small room for something to offer her reprieve. Her eyes met the piercing blue ones of her half sister, Marsaili. Colin and Findlay had said the girl was dim-witted, yet her eyes looked clear to Isobel. Judging by the woman’s unkempt appearance, she needed a rescuer from Jean, too. Clearly, the horrid woman did not properly care for her daughter when Father was not in residence.
Isobel’s heart twisted for the young woman, and then an idea came to her. She hated to use Marsaili, but she was desperate and the woman would not be hurt. Isobel placed a hand on Lord MacLeod’s arm and forced herself to smile up at him. “My lord, forgive me. I am sorry for moments ago. If I’m to be married, please may I have my sister Marsaili by my side—washed of the dirt covering her, of course.”
Lord MacLeod stared down at Isobel with an implacable gaze that made her stomach tighten. He was going to refute her request; she simply knew it.
“Ye wish the half-wit to be yer witness?” he asked incredulously as he released her.
“I do, my lord,” she replied, struggling to control her anger at his referring to Marsaili as a half-wit. Isobel looked at Marsaili, who, much to her surprise, appeared to be scrutinizing Isobel. She smiled at Marsaili, hoping to ease her fears should there be any.
And that’s when all hell unleashed.
~ ~ ~
The motto of the MacLeod clan, Hold fast, strummed a relentless beat through Graham MacLeod’s head as he stood in the pitch-black woods that surrounded Innis Chonnell Castle. Revenge was not far off; all he had to do was wait. He stared into the night methodically, recalling what he and his men had learned of their enemy’s routine in the two days since arriving on the island and hiding in the thick woods.
By now, all the Campbells had long been to bed. There were five guards spaced evenly apart on each of the north, south, east, and west walls that surrounded the castle, yet not a one of them had seen Graham or his men as they had swum through the loch to reach the island, made camp in the woods, and even scaled the fortress wall in rehearsal for their revenge. The Campbell men who had been left to guard Innis Chonnell were not very observant. This both surprised and pleased him.
He was here for two reasons: to destroy their castle, and to take Isobel Campbell, the laird’s daughter and the new heiress to Brigid Castle. That castle was a key holding for the king and for the MacLeods who would be protecting him from their enemies. He pictured Brigid in his mind, sitting dauntingly between Skye and the mainland. All ships had to pass by that castle to get to Skye, and they had to have the permission of the keeper of Brigid to do so. Currently, that keeper was Isobel Campbell’s grandmother. His mouth tugged at the corners in a respectful smile. The older woman was cunning. She had cleverly orchestrated a system in which her men placed a chain in the water that ran from the shores of Brigid to the shores of the mainland, and she ordered that chain raised against those ships she did not want to let pass. The ships would then have to turn back and attempt the stormy passages of the Minch to reach their destinations.
King David would be well pleased to marry Isobel to someone of his choosing, someone who would hold Brigid Castle and strengthen the king’s ability to maintain his rightful position as King of Scots, and Graham was well pleased to deliver her to the king as promised and take a step toward the destruction of the Campbells for their many crimes against his family.
Harnessing the anger the mere thought of the Campbells always brought, Graham repeatedly squeezed his hands into tight fists and released them until they prickled and burned, warding off the numbness trying to set in from the cold as he also took deep breaths of freezing air to keep his mind sharp. It would not be long now, and he needed to be ready. Isobel had arrived at the castle hours earlier, exactly as their informant had told them a sennight before that she would. Soon the informant would signal them to attack.
With a glance toward the forest, where he knew his men attempted to rest before battle, he listened. He could not see his men, but their even breathing filled the silence with a blanketing whoosh that told him they were near and in clusters. Snores punctuated the rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. He envied them. He could never settle his mind enough to sleep before a battle.
Gripping his sword, each muscle rippled down the length of his arm in response. Physically, he was ready. He had never been in better condition in his life. He shifted his weight to the leg that he had injured over a year earlier when he’d fought against English knights trying to seize his eldest brother Iain’s wife, Marion. The only pain Graham felt now was from the tightness of muscles needing warmth. He smiled grimly. Relentless, excruciating training had rid him of every trace of the limp the near-fatal wound had plagued him with for many months following. He had the strength of a warrior to match the best.
It wasn’t boastful, just a fact he had proven by testing himself against both his older brothers, Iain and Lachlan, who were legendary fighters. Finally, he had honed his body into that of a combatant equal to both his brothers. Gratitude filled him. While the attempt had begun as a result of jealousy toward Lachlan and a need to best him, that desire no longer plagued him. He prayed now that his strength in mind was as great as that of his sword arm, for tonight he would need both.
Feeling restless, Graham signaled to his younger brother, Cameron. “I’m going to run through the course of attack once more,” he said in a low whisper so as not to disturb the sleeping men.
“Again?” Cameron replied with a snort. “Do ye nae believe the forty times before committed the course to yer memory?”
“There is always opportunity to improve,” Graham replied, smiling into the darkness and choosing not to scold his brother for his impertinent tone. He was glad to have Cameron with him for this battle, impertinence and all. He trusted no one in this world more than Cameron, who Graham was closer to than he was to Iain or Lachlan. Though Graham would die to protect any of them, Cameron had always been his confidant. Iain, as laird of the clan, had always kept himself somewhat distant, and Graham’s relationship with Lachlan had been strained for many years due to his own folly. But he did not want to dwell now on how foolish he had been. He would have the rest of his life—he hoped—to try to make amends for that.
“We kinnae afford an error, Brother. If we make one, dunnae fool yerself into believing we will get this chance again. The Campbell will nae be so foolish as to leave Innis Chonnell guarded by so few of his men whilst the rest are away fighting, and Isobel Campbell will be married to our enemy before we can even escape this island.”
“Ye’re right, Brother. Do ye want me to make the sweep with ye?” Cameron asked in hushed tones.
“Nay. Ye take respite. I’ll go alone and whistle if I see trouble.”
Graham could hear the weariness in his brother’s tone. “Aye. I’m certain. I’ll nae be long.” He didn’t wait for Cameron to respond this time. He merely turned and plodded through the thick snow, listening to the howling wolves that prowled the woods. His fatigued legs burned as he walked. He was weary. They all were. They’d ridden at a relentless pace from their home on the Isle of Skye to Loch Awe, but it had been necessary to arrive here, where they knew Isobel was being brought to marry his and Cameron’s uncle Jamie, the traitor.
Burning rage warmed him at the thought of his uncle. Graham smirked into the darkness. It would give him great pleasure to snatch Isobel Campbell from his uncle. Graham’s informant had told him that Jamie was to marry the heiress, and Graham felt sure Jamie thought to use marriage to Isobel to assure the Campbell’s continued aid in his attempt to steal the lairdship of the MacLeod clan from Iain. And the Campbell thought to use the marriage of his daughter to Jamie to assure Jamie oversaw Brigid as the Campbell himself wished, which meant using the castle to help them control the Isles and seize the throne from King David. Destroying Innis Chonnell tonight and taking Isobel would obliterate much of the enemy’s plan.
A sudden howling nearby drew Graham’s attention back to his surroundings. So far they had not had to contend with the wolves, and he said a quick prayer that their luck held, preferably for the duration of their time on the island. But if God was not feeling so very generous this night, hopefully the wolves would at least stay away until after Graham and his men stormed the castle and had seized Isobel Campbell. The best way to fight off the wolves was fire, but if he could see the castle wall from where they were, then the Campbell men would surely be able to see a fire, so such an approach would be impossible.
He shoved branches out of his way as he walked, but one snapped back too quickly for him to duck and it sliced his cheek. The instant warmth of blood trickled down his icy skin, the contrast of hot and cold making him grit his teeth. Ignoring the sting of the cut, he wiped the blood away with the back of his hand and kept moving toward the embankment where they would scale the fortress wall into the castle courtyard. He had learned a long time ago that pain, whether to the heart or the body, could be harnessed—sometimes even conquered—with a strong enough will.
His will was as deep as the ocean, and its current flowed only toward revenge. Coming to the embankment, he stared up at the looming castle. His heart began to pound as his blood rushed through his veins, sending painful pricks of anticipation to every part of his body.
Suddenly, a woman’s scream split the silent night. “Ban-druidh, ban-druidh!”
The word witch rang loud and clear. The signal had been given. It was time to pilfer the prize he had promised his brothers and his king.
~ ~ ~
Isobel could do no more than stand there stupefied as Marsaili screeched at the top of her lungs.
“Ban-druidh, ban-druidh, ban-druidh!” she cried while pointing at Isobel.
Isobel stared in shock and horror as Jean slapped Marsaili across the face, but it did not stop the woman’s screams.
Her face red with fury, Jean motioned to two men standing guard at the door. “Take her from the chapel!” Jean snapped, one hand gripping Marsaili’s arm so tight that Jean’s fingers became white. Her stepmother looked to the priest and barked, “Marry them!”
Fear propelled Isobel to scramble backward, but she ran into someone. Glancing over her shoulder, a wave of dismay filled her at the sight of Jamie MacLeod. He shoved her forward so violently that she nearly fell to her knees, only catching herself with a hand to the wall.
“Ye heard yer mistress, Father. Marry me to the wench right now,” he said, moving directly behind her as if to block her from fleeing, which she intended to do as soon as she could determine how.
“But if she be a witch—” the priest started, the rest of his sentence drowned out by Marsaili’s wailing.
Lord MacLeod pushed by Isobel as he strode toward the priest, whose eyes went round as he cowered. At that exact moment, the guards dragged Marsaili past Isobel, but the woman grasped onto Isobel’s arm and began to drag Isobel with her. As Isobel worked to free herself from the painful grip of her half sister, who was now kicking one guard and clawing at the other—all while still managing to hold onto Isobel and move them toward the door—more shouting came from behind her.
“Ye will marry us!” Lord MacLeod boomed.
“But, my lord, if the lady be a witch—”
“Ban-druidh, ban-druidh,” Marsaili chanted.
“If ye dunnae shut that loon’s mouth, I’ll kill her,” Lord MacLeod snarled to the guards who gripped Marsaili.
Isobel struggled to block out the noise in the chapel and the noise in her head. She had to think. She had to flee. She didn’t know why Jean was trying to marry her to this man, but he was clearly evil. Her father would never have agreed to such a match, which explained why they were trying to force her into it now, when her father and her brothers were not present.
“Just take them both out!” Jean demanded as the guards struggled to fight off a now spitting, snarling Marsaili while trying to get her to release Isobel. With a hard yank, Isobel found herself jerked outside into the freezing, black night along with Marsaili.
“Ban-druidh, ban-druidh,” Marsaili screamed so loudly it hurt Isobel’s ears.
With a loud bang, the chapel door slammed shut behind them.
Marsaili immediately fell quiet, and one of the guards stomped away only to come back seconds later with a torch that pierced the darkness with a small bit of light. It was just enough that when the guard shone it in Marsaili’s face, Isobel started at what she saw. Marsaili was giving her the sweetest smile.
Then she released Isobel. “Ye’re welcome,” she said, batting one of the guards’ hands away while staring straight at Isobel.
Isobel blinked. “Ye were lying in order to help me?” Isobel whispered, both grateful and astounded.
Marsaili winked at her as she shifted her gaze past the guards and Isobel. “The fit has passed,” she announced. Isobel looked behind her at the wall that surrounded the castle, but she saw nothing abnormal. She had no notion what her half sister was staring at.
When she turned back around, Marsaili dragged her gaze to Isobel and then the guards. “I vow to be verra good. Ye can move away now. I will nae leave.”
The guards exchanged a wary look but nodded and stepped far enough back to give them some solitude, but not so far that they could not easily and quickly take Marsaili in hand again if necessary.
Marsaili stepped closer to Isobel and grabbed her by the hand. “Dunnae fear,” the woman whispered. “Ye’ll nae be marrying that devil Jamie MacLeod this night.”
Relief made Isobel tremble. She squeezed Marsaili’s hand. “I kenned well Father would nae marry me to his greatest enemy,” she replied in hushed tones. Isobel swallowed hard, trying to think how to delicately say the rest of what was in her mind. “Marsaili,” she said gently, “is yer mother…” She paused. How did one ask someone if her mother was evil? Och! There was no good way. With a quick breath, she asked, “Is Jean conspiring with Lord MacLeod?”
Marsaili’s eyes popped wide. “Aye.” She quirked her mouth for a moment, and then said, “Conspiracy blankets everything, Isobel, but nae all of it be born of evil.”
Isobel frowned. “Are ye trying to tell me that more people are conspiring against our father?”
“Aye,” Marsaili replied, her gaze moving past Isobel once more.
“What are ye looking at?” Isobel demanded.
“Hush,” Marsaili hissed. “Ye will attract the fools’ attention.”
Isobel glanced toward the guards who were facing each other and talking, then she looked back to Marsaili, who shifted from foot to foot as if anxious. A warning sounded in her head, and she whipped around and glanced toward the top of the wall where men stood on guard. Slowly, she crept her gaze along the wall as Marsaili began to tug on her arm.
“Turn around, Isobel,” Marsaili commanded, but Isobel ignored her as the warning in her head grew almost deafening. She counted five guards on each wall before Marsaili pulled her around with a jerk.
Isobel gasped at her half sister, and craned her neck to look behind her once more. Four guards! There were but four guards to the north. As she stared it became three, then two, then one, and then the wall was bare of guards. For a moment, she was not certain she could believe her eyes, but then the same thing occurred on the south wall. She sucked in a breath, turned toward Marsaili, and asked in a low voice, “Do ye stand with Father or against him?”
Isobel didn’t know what was happening, but she knew her stepmother and Lord MacLeod were evil, and Marsaili had been the only person willing to help her thus far. She didn’t know if she could trust Marsaili, but she knew she could not trust Jean or Lord MacLeod, and it seemed her father’s men were currently doing Jean’s bidding.
Marsaili locked gazes with Isobel. “I stand with ye, Isobel. I vow it.”
Isobel’s heart thudded in her ears, and she faced the wall once more. As the moon came out from behind a cloud, a very large, very powerful-appearing, half-naked man poised for battle with a sword in hand became silhouetted against the night. Her breath caught in her throat. Suddenly, he disappeared, dropping over the wall so quickly she would almost have questioned that she’d seen anything at all except another man scrambled over the wall, and then another, and another. Isobel didn’t know whether to scream in warning at an attack or sigh with relief at a rescue.
Marsaili gripped her shoulder from behind. “They are here to help us.”
Uncertainty froze Isobel as she stared at the largest man. The darkness obscured his features, but she could see him raise a finger to his lips in a motion for her to be silent.
Before she could decide what to do, one of the guards yelled, “Attack!”
At the same moment, something swished by her ear. And then again. Swish.
The guard’s shouts abruptly stopped, and then a thud resounded in the night, followed quickly by another.
She did not have to turn around to know Jean’s men were dead. Knots of fear formed in her belly as Marsaili moved to Isobel’s side and gripped her hand. Marsaili squeezed her fingers hard as the giant of a man she had been watching at the top of the wall came to a shuddering stop in front of them. Twenty men flanked his sides like a human wall of iron. Something about his presence commanded attention above all else. His cold, hard gaze did not offer comfort but only more fear.
“Isobel Campbell?” he asked with such contempt that she immediately took a step back.
She glanced to Marsaili for reassurance but saw a flash of guilt on her half sister’s face. “Ye deceived me?” Isobel asked and accused at once.
Marsaili bit her lip. “’Tis nae so simple, Isobel. Please, I mean ye no harm. I only seek to help ye. Ye must trust me!”
“Intruders!” a voice rang from the rampart.
A horn blasted, and before Isobel could respond, the giant swept her and Marsaili behind him. “Neil! Defend them with yer life,” he called to one of his men.
She was seized by strong hands and dragged to the side of the keep, along with Marsaili. The chapel door banged open, a whistle pierced the air, and men suddenly flooded into the courtyard from the main castle.
~ ~ ~
Besieged by doubt, Isobel stood by the man Neil and watched the battle. Her father’s men—they wore his plaid but did he have their loyalty?—fought against the men Marsaili had vowed were there to help them. Isobel’s heart raced as two warriors drew near.
Neil pushed her head toward the ground. “Stay low,” he commanded.
She bumped foreheads with Marsaili, and as swords clanked above them, Marsaili grasped her hands. “Whatever happens, stay with me,” Marsaili said.
Dismay filled Isobel’s chest. Had she made the best choice? Did she even have one? Cries filled the courtyard along with the hard clank of steel meeting steel. The heat of at least fifty bodies drenched in sweat obliterated the biting cold in the air. Men rushed by her toward one another and bumped into her. She looked to where Neil had been, only to realize he was no longer beside her. Instead he was fighting before her, protecting her and Marsaili.
She stood abruptly, bringing her half sister with her. Two men battled very near, and the taller of the two—a Campbell—lunged forward in an attempt to plunge his sword into a bald-headed intruder, but he missed and his blade sliced through the skirt of Isobel’s gown. The soldier’s eyes caught hers, and the desire to kill shining there made panic riot within her. This man was crazed with the need to kill, and she feared greatly she was about to be a casualty.
“Yer laird is my father!” she screamed, hoping to pierce through the haze that had descended upon the man, or perchance remind him where his loyalty should lie.
His answer was a jerk of his sword, which released her gown so that she had barely enough time to scramble backward against the hard stone wall just as her father’s soldier was cut down by the man he had been fighting. The Campbell man fell at her feet, and the bald-headed marauder who had killed him didn’t spare her or Marsaili a glance. He simply disappeared into the press of bodies, and Isobel stood shaking, taking a few deep gulps of air only to realize it was heavy with smoke.
As coughs wracked Isobel’s body, Marsaili tugged on her arm. “Isobel, I fear the men who came to help us will not triumph. We must flee!”
“Flee?” Isobel cried out, trying to stifle the building panic. “To where? Do ye ken where Father is? Or Findlay and Colin?”
Marsaili gaped at her for a moment but finally answered. “Aye. Come with me.”
Isobel looked around the courtyard, which was splintered with early-morning light, a haze of smoke having replaced the oppressive darkness. One glance toward the castle confirmed what she had suspected: it was on fire.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she stared at Marsaili’s outstretched hand. “Why are these men burning our father’s castle?”
When Marsaili opened and shut her mouth as if she did not know what to say, Isobel’s uneasiness grew. “Who are these men?” she tried.
Instead of answering, Marsaili grabbed Isobel’s arm and began to tug her along the wall. Isobel dug in her heels and yanked back, but Marsaili was a head taller and a bit heavier.
“Marsaili!” Isobel yelled over the noise of battle. “Who are these men?” she asked again.
Marsaili stopped at the beginning of a narrow path that led to a small door built into the wall. The passage was blocked by Lord MacLeod, who was fighting the large man who had asked if she was Isobel Campbell. A strangled cry came from Marsaili as she glanced between the path and the melee they had left behind them in the courtyard.
Gripping Isobel hard, Marsaili stared at her. “Ye have been deceived, Isobel.”
The desperate, pleading look on her face shocked Isobel. “By whom?” she whispered, her thoughts spinning. “Ye or someone else?”
Tears filled Marsaili’s eyes. “By Father, by Findlay, and by Colin, when he was alive.”
“What?” Isobel moaned, twisting her wrist to try to escape, but Marsaili held her more tightly. “Colin is dead? Our brother is dead?”
“Aye… And by me,” Marsaili sobbed.
Fright swept over Isobel, and she yanked her wrist away from Marsaili. “Ye killed our brother?”
“Nay!” Marsaili cried out as tears flowed down her face. “I have deceived ye, but I vow it was to help ye. And now we are trapped.” She motioned to Lord MacLeod and the other man. “We must get around them somehow!”
“I’m nae going anywhere with ye,” Isobel replied, scrambling backward to ensure she was out of Marsaili’s reach. But her half sister did not make a move to grab for her.
Marsaili swiped at the tears wetting her cheeks. “I dunnae blame ye for nae trusting me, but if ye stay, ye will be married to Lord MacLeod. Do ye wish that?”
Icy fear twisted through her. “Nay,” she whispered.
Marsaili held out her hand. “There are enemies all around ye, Isobel, but I’m nae one of them.”
Isobel’s stomach clenched as she looked past Marsaili to the two men blocking the path. They circled each other, and then their swords met in a wide arc over their heads. The larger man’s forearms and biceps seemed to strain against his skin as he fought Lord MacLeod. With a roar that made gooseflesh rise on Isobel’s arms, he pushed Lord MacLeod’s sword down and out of his hands, and shoved the man backward. Lord MacLeod stumbled to his knees.
“Come!” Marsaili shouted, already moving past the men.
Not seeing any choice but to follow, Isobel stepped forward, but the men’s plaids caught her attention and she froze. They were identical!
But that would mean they were from the same clan…
Her heart pounded furiously. The bigger man swung his sword down to deliver a blow to Lord MacLeod. Isobel watched in horror as Marsaili started back for her, and at the same time, Lord MacLeod sprang up and jerked Marsaili in front of him as the shining steel blade came down.
“Nay!” Isobel shouted, and the tall, muscled warrior pulled his blade back just enough that only its tip met with Marsaili’s clothing. Her gown parted, but her skin was untouched. Before Isobel could release a breath of relief, Lord MacLeod whipped out a dagger and dug the point into Marsaili’s throat. A drop of crimson immediately appeared, dread tightening Isobel’s chest. Lord MacLeod was a bad, bad man.
As if to prove her right and stoke the flame of her tension, he said, “Set down yer weapon, Nephew, or I’ll kill this dim-witted wench here and now.”
Nephew! Isobel gaped at the stranger, who she could now see clearly in the light of day. He had warm, golden-brown eyes and wavy, gleaming, chestnut hair that just grazed the top of his shoulders. He wore a mask of indifference, but a vein beat a rapid pulse at his neck. She could hardly believe a man who belonged to the clan of her family’s greatest enemy would set down his weapon to save a Campbell, but his gaze flicked from his uncle to Marsaili to the dagger.
A slow, menacing smile pulled at his lips. “Ye may take me captive if I set down my weapon, but ye will nae save the castle. It burns even as we stand here, and ye and the Campbell will nae be able to use it to provide shelter for the men ye train for evil any longer.”
Isobel’s breath caught. Evil! Her father would never train men for evil purposes! This man was mistaken.
“I’ll nae need it,” Lord MacLeod responded and glanced at Isobel. “Ye may congratulate me, Nephew. I’m to marry Isobel Campbell here, and her inheritance, Brigid Castle, will be mine.”
Isobel seethed. “I’d rather be dead than married to a MacLeod,” she spat.
Lord MacLeod narrowed his eyes upon her and gave her a look that told her he’d be all too happy to kill her once he had her castle. The other man, Lord MacLeod’s nephew, offered an amused smile.
“Graham!” yelled a voice from a distance. “Two Campbell ships approach!”
Hope swelled in Isobel’s chest. Perchance her father or brother was arriving!
“We must away,” the man in the distance called. “The main keep burns steady, and the enemy has been felled. Deal quickly with our treacherous uncle. Our work here is done. I’ve sent the rest of the men on.”
Confusion battered Isobel. The MacLeods were apparently a clan at war with itself, but Lord MacLeod seemed the evil one with his dagger still pressed to Marsaili’s neck, and the other man—this Graham—seemed to be the one with a sense of honor.
“Dunnae listen to yer brother, my nephew, and set down yer weapon!” Lord MacLeod boomed and then ran his blade across Marsaili’s neck just hard enough to draw a line of blood. Marsaili whimpered, and Isobel had to bite hard on her lip so she would not cry out, too. Her gut told her that Graham was Marsaili’s only hope. Even if it was her father or Findlay approaching, she feared they would not reach them in time to help.
Isobel watched in astonishment as Graham set down his sword and stood with his arms spread wide. “Release the woman, ye coward, and face me like a man.”
“Graham!” his brother called from the distance again.
“Go, Cameron!” Graham shouted in reply. “I’ll meet ye where we arrived, and if I dunnae and the sun is high in the sky, leave me until the bird calls once again in the night.”
Isobel could not believe this stranger before her. Either he was mad or he had no doubt he could cut down his uncle. He had his gaze trained in the distance and, after a moment, tension seeped from Graham’s face. She suspected it was because his brother had departed safely. She inhaled a startled breath to see such a display of caring from her family’s enemy. Her father and brothers had described them as beasts, but this man was showing nothing but bravery and honor. He had bid his brother to leave him in order to ensure his safety and willingly faced his uncle without aid to protect Marsaili. Isobel could not help but admire his selflessness, but at the same time, she felt as if she was betraying her father and brother.
She focused on Lord MacLeod just as he shoved Marsaili away from him and toward Graham, who caught her as she started to fall and drew her up to her feet. Before Isobel could discern what Lord MacLeod was conspiring to achieve, the dagger flew from his hands and straight toward Marsaili.
Isobel screamed a warning, but there was no need. Graham pushed Marsaili out of the way, and the dagger hit him in his sword arm. He winced, then reached up and ripped the dagger from his flesh as Lord MacLeod started toward him with his own sword now in hand.
By the burning hatred in Graham’s eyes, Isobel didn’t doubt that he would defeat Lord MacLeod, even wounded and weaponless, but suddenly shouts filled the courtyard and the ground beneath her vibrated from the thunderous sound of running men. Glancing behind her to see who was approaching, her heart leaped at the sea of men wearing her father’s plaid as they rushed toward her.
“’Tis Findlay!” Marsaili shouted, but the absence of relief and presence of fear made Isobel frown.
An almost-inhuman roar came from Graham, and he barreled past Lord MacLeod, elbowing his uncle in the face as he went, then charged full force at Findlay. But from the left and the right, her father’s men swarmed toward Graham.
“Dunnae kill him!” Lord MacLeod shouted, his voice gurgling from the blood pouring from his nose. “He is mine to deal with!”
Isobel’s thoughts raced and spun as she stared, stupefied and half in fear for the warrior who had saved Marsaili’s life. Even with one of her father’s men grasping his left arm now and another holding his right, Graham continued to move toward Findlay with astonishing strength, dragging her father’s men with him. Findlay, sword in hand with a shockingly cruel smile twisting his lips, strode toward Graham. “How is yer sister, MacLeod? How is my bonny bride?”
Isobel gulped a breath of utter astonishment. Findlay was married to a MacLeod? She frowned. She did not understand. Then Marsaili’s words echoed in Isobel’s head: Ye have been deceived. Surely she could trust her brother, couldn’t she?
Findlay sent the hilt of his sword into Graham’s forehead, and the man slumped forward, unconscious. Isobel trembled as she watched his sudden dead weight cause the men clutching him to stagger and almost fall. Graham had sacrificed himself honorably to save Marsaili, and in truth, Isobel felt numb and confused rather than relieved.
Marsaili took Isobel’s hand. “The devil’s come home,” she whispered, her wide gaze fixed on Findlay.
Before Isobel could question her half sister’s comment, Lord MacLeod jerked her away from Marsaili and toward him. “Time for us to marry, Isobel.”
Isobel looked to Findlay. “Brother, surely Father dunnae wish me to marry a MacLeod?”
The look of contempt he gave her felt like a slap across the face. “Ye dunnae ken a thing, Isobel, and ye nae ever have. Father wished it that way. Ye will do as ye’re told and marry Jamie MacLeod this night.”
“I will nae!” she exclaimed, flinching when Findlay strode toward her, his face twisted with rage. She half expected Marsaili to abandon her grip on Isobel and move out of Findlay’s reach, but he closed the distance between them in a breath, shoved Marsaili away, and gripped Isobel hard by the arms. “Ye will do as ye’re told,” he growled again.
“Findlay, please,” she said on a rush of fear. “Ye’re hurting me.”
“Let her go!” Marsaili cried out, thrashing at Findlay’s arm.
When Findlay backhanded Marsaili and she fell to her knees, Isobel flinched and tried to help her. Findlay jerked Isobel back. “Leave her,” he demanded. “She’s nae worthy of yer pity.”
Disbelief struck Isobel momentarily mute. This was a side of her brother she had never seen. He had never been as warm to her as Father or Colin had, but he had never seemed cruel. Pity twisted inside her chest and made her eyes fill with tears as she looked at Marsaili, who was struggling to stand. When Isobel focused on Findlay once more, he smirked at her as if he understood something, but she could not imagine what.
“It seems ye inherited yer mother’s weakness of compassion, Isobel. ’Tis a shame for ye, but a good thing for me. Listen well. Ye will marry Lord MacLeod this night, or Marsaili will suffer for it. I may nae be able to touch ye, per Father’s orders, but I will beat Marsaili to her death if ye dunnae do as I say.”
With that, Findlay roared, “Bring the damned priest out here now!”