The Protector

The Protector (Highland Brides, book 1)
Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
Release date: 08/12/2015
ISBN:
9780857992895

 

Chapter One

July 1404

It was time to go.

Duff drew his horse, Duncan, to a halt at the top of the highland mountain and stared out over the sprawling valley beyond. It was time to leave all hope of discovering who he was behind.

The unfamiliar taste of failure soured his tongue. He never failed. Ever. Why then had he failed in this one thing, the only thing he ever really wanted?

He swallowed, hard. Morning sunlight splashed the mountain faces to the west, while clumps of oak trees formed small woods dotting the valley’s shadowed floor. Duff tipped his head back and watched an eagle soaring high in the blue of a cloud-scattered sky, searching for food amongst the brush below.

Duncan tensed beneath him. Duff lowered his chin in time to see his horse turn his head to the right. Brown ears flickered and then pricked forward. A slight movement halfway down the slope caught Duff’s eye.

They weren’t the only souls on this particular mountain.

Six men huddled in a cluster of alders. Each man sat a horse and carried a sword. Three also carried a dagger. Dirt smeared the colours of their plaids but not enough to hide the fact that none were the same. Frayed cuffs, one too long, two far too short in length for the arms they were meant to cover. All six wore leather vests, but three were drawn too taut across shoulders and back.

Their ill-fitting attire defined the type of men these were, more so than if Duff had shared a meal, a cup and a blether while breaking his fast with them this morn. Everything about them declared they were up to no good. Much like the hungry eagle stalking its prey, the group’s attention was fixed solely on something at the base of the mountain.

Duff peered down, his gaze settling on four riders heading away from the rising sun. They rode two abreast, and despite the distance and shadows, their bearing and formation screamed their high station. And their caution.

This is not your concern.

True. His year of leave was drawing to an end. It was time to head south. Away from this glen, from the Highlands. The place in his chest where his heart should be felt hollow, empty. He squared his shoulders. He’d survived twenty-six years being an orphan, without a family name, he’d survive another twenty-six years and more.

His gaze brushed the mercenaries and then the travellers below. Six against four was hardly fair. The fingers of his sword arm twitched, demanding justice where it could be found. He’d discover nothing more of his origins, but here, now …

Return south.

Soon. First he’d even the odds.

He scanned the lay of the land. The path the small group travelled ended at a sharp rise in the valley floor. The peak formed the lowest part of the pine-dotted ridge to his right. A good place to strike from behind.

Hooves echoed off the hard-packed ground as the riders passed directly below. There wasn’t much time before they reached the rise.

The band of mercenaries grew restless, then suddenly spilled down the side of the mountain. They announced their presence with a combined roar. The four unsuspecting men wheeled their mounts about.

Duff reached behind him and wrapped his fingers about the trusted hilt of his sword. He drew the blade from its sheath at his back. His blood quickened. He inhaled slowly. The calming breath slowed his heartbeat.

He settled his weapon across his thighs and tightened the leather reins about his free hand. Then leaning back, gripping his mount’s flanks with his knees, he rode over the edge of the mountain.

He passed the halfway mark down, but still no one below registered his presence. Like a shepherd watching over his flock, Duff kept a close eye on the four travellers. The rebels drew their blades, they’d almost reached their targets. The travellers drew their weapons in preparation for the fight to come. Duff lifted his sword skyward and filling his lungs with fresh, Highland air, cried the Elliot call loud enough to be heard in the Borders.

A score of startled eyes turned his way. The thrill of the pending battle momentarily masked Duff’s disappointment at failing to discover his origins. At least he never lost a swordfight.

One of the rebels broke away from the rest and headed toward him. Duff assumed a battle-fierce scowl, briefly pitying the fool for believing he could best him on his own.

Duff dropped the reins, pulled the dagger from his waistband with his left hand whilst brandishing his sword in his right. His attacker charged, his blood-hungry gaze fixed on Duff’s long swinging blade rather than watching Duff’s eyes.

Their mounts galloped closer. Duff swung his sword in a sideways motion, the sharp edge positioned to slash his opponent’s belly. A purely distractive move. The mercenary’s weapon angled to block the impending blow.

Blades clashed. Taking advantage of his purposeful distraction, Duff stretched his left arm across his mount’s neck, and with a flick of his wrist slashed open the rebel’s upper arm with his dagger.

A deafening scream rang out, then faded as his victim’s horse bolted. The rebel would survive his wound, but would no longer play a role in this day’s attack.

Duff turned his attention to the battle unfolding before him.

Both mercenaries and their prey had collided, the clang of steel against steel stole the innocence from the new day. Three from each group fought one on one, the remaining two rebels had singled out the eldest of the travellers.

Anger rushed through Duff’s veins. It took two of them to tackle a man twice their age. The scene reminded him of when five older lads had set upon a young orphan named Callum. Rage filled Duff now as it had back then, moments before he’d plunged into the group of bullies and sent them home whimpering.

Cowards!

He spurred his mount forward. One of the curs turned to greet him, his sword slicing a path through the air in perfect alignment with Duff’s throat. With a mighty swing of his blade, Duff knocked the offending weapon aside and quickly followed through with a thrust that earned a painful grunt from the man who now sported a gash in one thigh. This rebel too would live, if the wound was treated immediately.

Duff turned and matched the fierce glare cast at him by the second cur. Unkempt black hair hung in clumps to his shoulders, and his mouth formed a feral snarl through the thick stubble covering his jaw. Without taking his eyes from Duff, he called, ‘Away,’ to the rest of his mercenary band.

They gathered together and rode toward the slope to the right. Duff’s first victim joined the others, his injured arm dripping his life’s blood into the soil.

The sound of laboured breathing grew louder as the travellers approached Duff, but he continued to watch the thieves’ retreat. He’d not look away until they disappeared from his sight. Not when he’d glimpsed hatred blazing in the eyes of their leader. The battle had been short, Duff’s part small, but he’d gained a lifelong enemy for his interference.

Pity he wouldn’t be in the area long enough to test his skills against the cowardly filth.

The rebels reached the start of the incline. Two mounted figures from the opposite direction suddenly topped the rise at a swift pace. Horses screamed in protest as their surprised masters pulled them up fast.

The thickset rider to the left managed to control his horse. The tall, slim, cloaked figure didn’t fare so well. The glossy black beast reared, its front hooves flailing wildly. The hood fell from the rider’s head, revealing a long plait of golden hair.

***

Mairi Gordon pulled hard on the reins and then choked off a gasp as her startled horse reared for a second time. She twined the leathers about her hands, cutting off the flow of blood to her fingertips.

Be calm.

Even in the midst of danger, with her blood flowing faster than a Highland waterfall, she had to remain in control.

‘Down,’ she ordered, throwing her weight forward along her mount’s neck.

Waves of the black mane slapped her cheeks. The thud of front hooves colliding back on solid ground couldn’t drown out the battle cries filling the glen.

Stay calm.

She straightened in her saddle and assessed the mounted men in the shallow valley. Six were positioned halfway up the incline and were heading towards her. She didn’t need to see their ragged clothes or their fierce expressions to know they posed the most danger.

A dark-haired man was riding toward them from the rear. Her gaze skimmed the four riders further back and a head of thick, white hair snared her attention.

Father?

A shard of fear pierced the cast-iron barrier she’d built around her heart. A long-ago memory of blood and helpless sorrow flashed through her mind. Her worst nightmare. All over again.

She blinked it away. She’d come to welcome her father home from delivering his invitation to her third and final suitor. She refused to lose her father, too. But how best to help him?

She’d left her weapon of choice at home, if being forced to choose could be deemed a choice at all. Without her bow, her options were limited. She could ride into the melee—

Before the idea had fully formed, a familiar figure secured her reins. Through the haze of her fiery determination and the feeling of helplessness, her personal guard’s beloved face swam into view. Worry deepened the lines already marking Balfour’s kind face.

‘Your father is able to care for himself,’ he yelled. ‘He would expect you to think of your own safety. Break and ride for Gordon. I’ll come to you when I can.’

Mairi’s restless mount jerked its head, threatening to pull her arms from their moorings.

‘I can’t leave him, Balfour.’

‘You must. Your father would want it so. Go now while you can.’ He released her reins. ‘I’ll see to the laird.’

Father. How best to aid him?

Stay or ride for help?

Another mighty roar sounded. She turned from Balfour. Her heart froze.

A fair-haired man broke free from the closest group and rode toward her, closely followed by the dark-haired man who’d ridden from the rear. He leaned low over his mount’s thick neck, his attention seemingly fixed on her. Despite her fear, another idea formed. To give her father a better chance of survival, she could draw these two away, outride them and then go for help.

Mairi looked at her personal guard, ‘Be safe, Balfour.’ She turned her horse. ‘I’ll see you at Gordon.’ Her mount shot forward into full stride.

The wind’s cool fingers whipped her face and slipped through the opening of her cloak. Refreshing. Awakening. Her horse galloped across the sparsely wooded valley floor, heading toward the distant rim. Once over the rise, Gordon lands sprawled in every direction, far beyond what the eye could see.

She glanced over her shoulder. Two riders followed. Two less for her father and his men to fight. Satisfaction slid through her. If they thought to capture her to ransom later, she’d have to disappoint them. She’d been riding these hills since she was a small child and knew all the secret paths and inhospitable valleys. They’d never catch her, but she’d lead them a merry chase.

The rim was in sight. Only she knew of the path to the left. A path that led into the next glen’s rambling wood and to safety.

She would make it.

She threw another glance over her shoulder. And stiffened.

The fair-haired rebel had drawn nearer to her. The dark-headed man rode not far behind him, sword in hand. She turned from the sight of the blade.

She could make it.

Doubt prickled low in her belly. What if she didn’t? And why did the dark-haired rebel seem more dangerous to her when the other man was closer? There was something about the grim cast of his features that spoke of an unrelenting determination.

He is just a man.

She drew a calming breath.

She had to make it. For her father. For her clan.

She turned back for another look. He’d gained ground. On her other pursuer and on her. She spared the fair-haired rider a glance and turned to the front.

oments later, the clash of steel rang in her ears. She twisted about in her saddle and found her pursuers attacking one another. Were they both so desperate to catch her that they were willing to cut down one of their own?

Mairi’s stomach lurched. She faced forward, silently begging her mount to run faster. This time, she wasn’t a child. This time, there was no one to protect her. It was up to her. She needed to make good her own escape and outride these strangers.

A pained cry split the air. She didn’t look behind, didn’t need to see that only one man now followed. Didn’t need to look behind to know the determined, inky-haired barbarian had triumphed. She just knew.

She had to make it to the rim. Ride over it. Lose herself in the dense wood where her pursuer’s larger size would make it difficult to follow her into the thick greenery.

Her heart pounded in time with her horse’s urgent stride. Nearly there. Almost …

Thundering hooves approached. She pulled the reins hard to the right, veering away from her pursuer, and her escape route. But it made no difference. Her actions proved useless. No matter what she did he was always there, with her, closer.

Her heart’s reckless beat thudded in her ears, battered her temples.

The ridge loomed closer. Not far now. A tug about her throat made her gasp. The rebel had caught the trailing end of her cloak. Her chest tightened.

Calm. Think.

With a swift pull she loosened the ties about her neck and the garment slid free of her body.

‘Stop.’

She heard his deep-voiced command. She’d escaped his hold, but not the man. Did he expect her to stop because he asked her to? Was he mad?

he cast a quick look his way. Glimpsed his full, shapely mouth. Saw the dark stubble crowding his granite-hard jaw. Was close enough to look deeply into his thick-lashed brown eyes. Deepest, darkest brown.

‘I wish you nae harm.’

His shout brought her to her senses.

‘Then leave me—’

Her horse stumbled. She faced forward. No, not now. Don’t slow. She must never give—

A strong arm snaked about her waist. Mairi lost her breath. Her shocked gaze dropped and caught sight of a tanned forearm a moment before she was plucked right out of her saddle.

 

Excerpt from The Protector (Highland Brides, book 1). If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love the book! Available to purchase:

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