THREE

Hayden stayed in the corner of his chamber. He’d told himself to stay away, that he didn’t care about Isla, but his curiosity about her had swayed him. And Fallon had requested his presence. Why, Hayden wasn’t so sure.

He watched Isla thrash on the bed, her black hair tangled about her head and face. She burned with fever. Her body was flushed and sweat glistened on her skin, but he had a suspicion that’s not what made her mumble incoherently in her sleep, fear and dread visible on her oval face.

“I don’t understand,” Cara said from beside Lucan, their hands joined together. “Why didn’t our magic heal her? I’ve seen Sonya heal more serious wounds.”

Sonya shifted her thick braid over her shoulder, her gaze on Isla. “She fought our magic. It’s like she doesn’t want to be healed.”

“She did ask Hayden to kill her,” Fallon said.

Marcail sat beside the bed and wiped Isla’s brow once more with a damp cloth. “Regardless, she is in much pain. I can sense the terror within her.”

Hayden saw Quinn start toward his wife, but he wasn’t quick enough. Marcail put her hand on Isla and right before their eyes they saw the stiffness leave Isla’s body in the space of a heartbeat.

“Marcail, damn you,” Quinn said as he knelt and caught his wife against him as she crumpled to the side.

Before Marcail could answer, she leaned over and emptied her stomach in a bucket. When she finished and Quinn turned her in his arms, Marcail’s face was ashen and sweat beaded her brow.

Isla had begged for death and fought the healing, but still Marcail had used her magic and pulled the emotions within Isla into her own body. It was Marcail’s gift as a Druid. She could take others’ emotions into herself, though the greater the emotion the more it made Marcail ill.

Quinn held Marcail gently as the effects rushed through her body. “Why?” Quinn asked his wife.

“I could help her. Why wouldn’t I? She didn’t hurt us in Deirdre’s mountain, Quinn. Not once did she ever harm us.”

“How bad is it?”

Marcail visibly swallowed and closed her eyes. “Awful. I’ve never felt anything so ghastly in my life. Not even when I took Duncan’s pain from him. I don’t know how Isla is still alive.”

Hayden saw the slight movement on the bed and elbowed Fallon. “She moves.”

Isla knew it was a dream, but she didn’t care. She was with her sister, Lavena, once more. And in Isla’s arms was the most beautiful little girl alive — Grania, her niece.

The thick woods of her home surrounded Isla in their comfort and beauty. As a Druid she loved nature, and the closer she was to it the stronger her magic became.

The sky was clear and the birds loud as they flew from branch to branch while their songs filled the air. The smell of pine and oak, of fern and heather mixed together to bring the familiar smell of the forest to her. Isla could stay in the area forever.

But as always the beautiful day turned black and grim with the arrival of the mercenaries. Grania’s laughter turned into shrieks of panic as she was jerked from Isla’s arms.

Isla fought to get to her niece but the men were too strong, laughing through her struggles. Lavena yelled at Isla to get Grania, but Isla could do nothing against the strong arms that held her.

She managed to get free and tried to reach Grania, but a meaty fist slammed into her face, stopping Isla in her tracks. Then the men separated the three of them. Dread filled Isla. Not for herself but for her sister and Grania.

The dream changed again, turning darker and even more sinister as she was delivered into hell — Deirdre’s lair in the mountain. Thick black smoke surrounded her, the evil palpable as it began to drown her in the vapor.

And then, the dream was gone. For a moment Isla did nothing but lay there, unsure of what had happened. She didn’t know where she was. The anguish of her dreams had vanished. The terror of it all, however, still filled her.

Of a sudden, she recalled the solemn black eyes which had stared at her as she begged for death. Obviously the blond man hadn’t carried out her wishes.

Isla tried to swallow and felt her raw throat rebel at the effort. Her body burned with the ravages of a fever and her skin itched from sweating, but at least she was out of the snow and ice.

Between one heartbeat and the next she realized she wasn’t alone. She cracked open her eyes to find herself staring at Fallon and Lucan MacLeod as they stood at the foot of the bed.

Isla threw off the covers and dashed toward the door she spotted to her left. Instant, agonizing pain tore through her, but she had withstood far worse in her years at Cairn Toul and she pushed through the weighty mantle of pain.

She had to get away from them, away from everyone, before it was too late! She had taken only a few steps before a big blond stepped in front of the doorway, effectively blocking her escape.

She skidded to a halt, her body aching with each breath. With frantic hands Isla clawed at the strands of hair that clung to her sweat-covered face so she could better see. Her gaze scanned the chamber to find five men and three women watching her, but her gaze returned to the blond giant.

He stood silently, almost at ease, but she wasn’t fooled. He had the look of a Warrior, battle-hardened and ready for anything. At any moment.

“Let me leave,” she demanded of the chamber at large.

“Isla, you’re injured.”

She blinked and focused her vision on the man who spoke. “Broc?” Could the winged Warrior actually have sided with the MacLeods? Somehow she wasn’t surprised.

“Aye. It’s me.” His voice was soft, as if he were talking to a half-wit. “You need to rest.”

Isla shook her head, and then instantly regretted it as the chamber spun. She stepped back and ran into a wall. Her stomach churned, and she sunk her fingers into the stones to help keep herself standing. Her body was weak, and she didn’t know how long she could stand before what little strength she had was depleted.

“You have to let me go,” she panted. “Now. You have no idea what you’ve done by bringing me here.”

Fallon MacLeod stepped forward, his dark brown hair pulled in a queue at the back of his neck. He looked like the natural leader that he was. “Deirdre is dead, Isla. There is nothing for you to fear anymore.”

Isla couldn’t control the bubble of laughter that welled up inside her. She clamped a hand over her mouth and blinked back the sudden rush of tears. She shook her head and lowered her hand. “She’s not dead.”

“She is,” Lucan said.

Quinn nodded. “Listen to my brothers, Isla, for they’re correct. I saw Deirdre die with my own eyes.”

Isla briefly wondered why Marcail, who was on Quinn’s lap, looked ill, but the need to leave was too great for her to think of anything else. “Deirdre isn’t dead.”

A red-headed female with sharp amber eyes took a step toward Isla. “You have a fever, and your wound festers. Allow your body to recover. You will then see we speak the truth.”

Isla knew it was pointless to argue with them. As much as she didn’t want to say the words, she had to. “Stop it!” she yelled. “I’m not addled. I know Deirdre better than any of you. She isn’t dead, because if she was, I would be as well. We are linked through her black magic.”

The MacLeods shared a look, but it was Broc’s furrowed brow that told her he might understand what she was trying to say. Even the blond giant’s brow puckered at her words.

“Broc, I’m speaking true,” Isla said. He had to trust her so she could leave. “Deirdre isn’t dead. You have to believe me.”

Fallon shook his head. “I doona understand this. We saw Deirdre’s neck snap, and Hayden set her on fire.”

Isla didn’t know who Hayden was and didn’t care. “Deirdre cannot be killed by a broken neck or being burned.”

“Stay here and heal,” Quinn said again. “If you leave now you’ll die.”

“If only that were true,” Isla murmured, tired to her soul. She saw the hulking blond glance away from her and she took that moment to dart toward him, intent on escaping under his arm.

She wasn’t quick enough, however. As she reached him, his arms wrapped around her like iron manacles and dragged her against his hard chest. Her injury throbbed and her bones felt as if they would crush any moment under the impact of his strength. She looked up into the same black eyes she had seen before.

His face was a mask of anger, but flickering in the dark depths of his eyes, Isla saw a glimmer of emotion, as if he battled within himself over something.

Her hands had come to rest against his chest to push away, but beneath her palms was a solid wall of hard, unyielding muscle which wouldn’t be budged.

For a moment, she had the insane urge to run her hands over his chest, to feel all that sinew moving beneath her fingertips. She lost herself in the black pits of his eyes, wondering what it would feel like to stop fighting him and lay her head on his thick shoulder, to relinquish the need to stay strong and allow him to carry her burdens for a bit.

She had seen striking men before, but there was something about the man holding her that was different, special. It could be the hardness of his black eyes or the way his blond brows slashed over those eyes giving him a harsh, sinister look.

It could be the strong jaw and chin and hollowed cheeks or the way his blond hair fell haphazardly around his face and shoulders, as if he raked his hands through it often.

Whatever it was that held her it urged her not to fight him, to give into the new and wondrous sensations his touch caused. Her eyes dropped to his lips. What would it be like to press her mouth against his? She had never kissed a man before, never wanted to.

What was it about this man? How was he connected to the MacLeods? And what was wrong with her? Had her wound affected her thinking and her body?

All too soon she remembered where she was, and why she needed to leave.

“You should have taken my head as I asked,” she told him.

His wide, firm lips compressed into a tight line. She knew she should fight him, but she was held transfixed by the handsome face staring back at her.

“Nay.” That one word was said with finality, his deep voice laced with an edge.

Though she couldn’t see much of his body, the way he held her effortlessly against him told her all she needed to know about his strength. The fact he was a Warrior was a given.

She also noticed while the others wore tunic and breeches, this Warrior wore a kilt of blue, green, and white with a saffron shirt beneath it that did nothing to hide his chest corded with muscles, muscles her hands itched to caress.

“Please,” she tried again, disturbed to her soul at her reaction to this man. “Let me leave. You’re all in terrible danger if I stay.”

His gaze flickered over her shoulder, and that’s when Isla heard the chant.

“Nay!” she screamed and tried to wrench out of the Warrior’s arms. “Do not make me slumber!”

The last thing she wanted to do was go back to sleep and be tormented by her nightmares once more. There was no chance for her to fight the magic, though, not in her damaged state. She tried to beg the Warrior once more, but the sleeping chant took her before she could.

Hayden looked down at the woman in his arms. Isla’s ice-blue eyes had gone wild when she’d heard Sonya’s chant, her fingers digging into his shoulders.

Now, Isla’s eyes were closed, her head resting back against his arm. He could still hear her soft, velvet voice beseeching him to allow her leave the castle, could still feel the heat of her gaze as she looked over his face.

Had she liked what she saw? He didn’t want to care … but he was strangely curious. He’d never had trouble enticing women into his bed before. Yet there had been no emotion on Isla’s face as she looked her fill of him.

“What did you do to her?” Hayden demanded of Sonya.

Sonya lifted a shoulder. “I put her to sleep. She was becoming irate, and she needs to heal.”

“She was giving us information. And you didn’t see the fear in her eyes. She didna want to sleep.”

“Sleep will heal her.”

“I don’t think so,” Marcail said. “If what I took from her happens when she sleeps, it’s no wonder she became so agitated when she heard the chant. She’ll be back in that same distress once again.”

Hayden lifted Isla’s small body in his arms. They had taken her dirty, damaged gown and replaced it with a plain white chemise which was much too thin. Much too revealing. Even now Hayden could make out Isla’s small, pert breasts and her dark nipples. Most of the dirt from Isla’s face, arms, and chest was gone leaving only creamy skin he had glimpsed on Cairn Toul.

Skin he once more longed to caress.

To Hayden’s surprise, he found his body reacting to the soft curves beneath the simple linen. He knew the feel of her breasts pressed against him. He knew the feel of her small hands on his chest. He knew the slender curves that tantalized and teased his body.

And saints help him, he knew the way her lips parted softly, beckoning him to taste her, as she looked at him. He didn’t want to respond to Isla, but it seemed his body was not his own where she was concerned.

Hayden glared at Sonya instead of moving toward the bed. He wanted to know why Isla thought Deirdre was alive, but it would have to wait. And he’d have to wait for another look into her startling ice-blue eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Sonya said. “I thought it would be better if she rested.”

Fallon rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “You didn’t know. How long will she sleep?”

“It differs.”

Hayden silently cursed. Isla might be a drough, but he couldn’t forget the fear in her eyes. Whatever it was Marcail took from Isla earlier was enough to frighten the drough so that she clung to him, a stranger, someone who prevented her from leaving.

It took a moment for Hayden to realize Lucan was standing beside him, a dark brow raised in question. Lucan’s sea green eyes watched him carefully.

“What is it?” Hayden inquired.

“I asked if you planned to hold her the entire time she slept or lay her down?”

Hayden blew out a breath and walked to the bed. He glanced at Marcail to find the Druid studying him as he lay Isla down. Hayden pulled the covers over Isla and turned to leave.

“Was she telling the truth?” Fallon asked.

Hayden stopped and turned to face the others. “She’s determined to either leave or have herself killed. All you have to do is look into her eyes to see she believes what she is speaking about Deirdre. Whether it’s the truth or not, I cannot say.”

Fallon nodded.

“I’m inclined to believe her,” Quinn said. “Deirdre showed me Isla’s sister and niece. She used them to keep Isla doing what she wanted.”

Broc leaned a hand against the stone wall and dropped his head back so he looked at the ceiling. “Isla kept to herself except when Deirdre would send for her. Even then, she held all emotion from her face. The fear we saw just now was real.” He lowered his head and looked at Fallon. “And that worries me.”

“We all know how powerful Deirdre had gotten,” Lucan said. “What if Isla is telling the truth? What if Deirdre isn’t dead?”

Marcail moaned and buried her head in Quinn’s neck. “God help us all.”

“Then where is Deirdre?” Fallon asked.

Though Hayden hated to have to ask it, he knew he had to. “Did you find her body in the mountain?”

Fallon shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Holy hell,” Quinn mumbled and held onto Marcail tighter.

Hayden found his gaze on Isla, her pallor matching that of the linens. She would know where Deirdre was.

And Hayden intended to ensure she told them everything.

Dunmore kicked at the log in the hearth, sending sparks flying into the air, before he reclined in his chair. A moment later the log broke in half with a loud crack.

He had retreated to the cottage he kept close to Cairn Toul so he could get to Deirdre easily when she needed him. He still couldn’t believe she was gone. She had given him plenty of coin for his work, but to know that he was doing something for someone as great as she had brought meaning to his life.

Ever since he had found her as a lad of just sixteen summers, he had known Deirdre would do great things. It had never entered his mind that she would be killed. By the MacLeods. She was the greatest drough to ever live. It should never have happened.

“I’m not dead, Dunmore.”

Dunmore sat up in his chair and looked around his cottage as he reached for his sword that lay beside him. He was alone just as he had been a moment before. But the voice had come from inside his head.

“You’re not hearing things. My body was destroyed, as well as most of my wyrran. My magic is regenerating my body even as we speak. I will have a form once more, Dunmore. Until then, there is something I need you to do.”

It never entered Dunmore’s mind that the voice in his head wasn’t Deirdre. He had seen what her magic could do, and he knew she had lived for a thousand years. She was the goddess she claimed to be.

“How can I serve?” he asked.

Deirdre chuckled. “My wyrran are cleaning my mountain. I need you to get to Cairn Toul quickly. I’ve a need for a Druid. The MacLeods will pay for ruining my empire.”

“I will see it done,” Dunmore vowed and leapt to his feet.

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