FIVE

Hayden fisted his hands, then flexed them in an effort to rid his skin of the feel of Isla. Of her warm, soft, all-too-alluring skin.

He had heard her sharp intake of breath and turned to see her falling. With the powers his god gave him, it took but a blink to reach her to prevent the fall.

Ever since he had walked in on her bath he had been rattled, his senses attuned to her in a way that left him hot and aroused.

He had seen nothing of her body other than her slim shoulder, graceful neck, and lean arms. But it was more than enough to make his balls tighten. Her black hair, wet and slicked back from her freshly scrubbed face, would haunt him for eternity as would her eyes that had grown large and round when she spotted him.

When he had found her on Cairn Toul he had known she was pretty, but he hadn’t known she was breathtakingly so. Without the grime and blood covering her, he could hardly take his eyes from her.

His body had reacted quickly to the sight of her bare flesh covered with droplets of water. He had grown instantly — and shockingly — hard. He had made sure to keep his distance until she had nearly fallen. And that had put him face to face with her.

He inhaled and smelled her scent of snow and wild pansies which beckoned him closer. Tempted him, charmed him.

Ensnared him.

Once more her soft, alluring body was pressed against him, teasing him, enticing him to touch and kiss her. The irresistible yearning to take her mouth left him shaking with a hunger that threatened to devour him.

But he had to remember who she was, what she was, and that a drough had viciously killed his family.

As he walked her to the great hall he was careful to keep his pace sedate and his stride short. He didn’t need her falling again. Not because he cared whether she hurt herself, but because he couldn’t touch her again. If he did, he was likely to give into the crushing desire to taste her lips.

When they turned to descend to the hall, he felt her pause behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw her taking in the people waiting for her.

There were twelve Warriors now, including him. With the MacLeod wives and Sonya, it was a crowd of sixteen that awaited her.

Hayden was impressed to see her lift her head high as she walked down the stairs and followed him to the chair the others had set aside for her. The chair was centered between the two long tables so that it faced them and the others could see her. She remained standing, however, the excessive material of her gown pooling like a lavender sea at her feet.

“We have some questions based on what you’ve told us and Marcail,” Fallon said from his place at the head of the table.

Isla clasped her hands in front of her and waited. No emotion showed on her face. Hayden didn’t know if she was nervous or excited. She was a master at hiding her feelings.

“And I will answer those questions,” Isla said.

Quinn motioned to the chair. “Please, sit and make yourself comfortable.”

Isla lowered herself into the chair. Hayden noticed her feet didn’t quite touch the floor. She sat with her back straight and her gaze level. Waiting.

“Do you wish for something to eat or drink?” Lucan asked.

“Nay,” Isla said. “I’m ready to begin.”

Hayden met Fallon’s gaze for a moment. Hayden was the only one of the Warriors not sitting at the table, but then again he was content to be apart from the others.

“All right. Is Deirdre dead?” Fallon asked.

Isla shook her head. “She is very much alive.”

“I burned her body,” Hayden said.

Isla’s ice-blue gaze swung to him. “As I tried to explain earlier, there is nothing that can kill Deirdre. She has had a thousand years to perfect her black magic, ensuring that she never dies.”

“Nothing can kill her?” Arran asked.

Isla’s head turned back to the group. “She took great pains in showing us all the ways someone might kill her, and every time it failed. Her body might be gone, but she’s still here.”

“How do you know?” Larena asked.

For the first time Hayden saw a spark of emotion. Isla’s gaze shifted to the floor, and he could have sworn she shivered.

“I’ve felt her trying to communicate with me in my mind a few times,” Isla said. “I was too weak from my wound for her to be able to control me.”

Quinn steepled his hands. “How is Deirdre going to continue without a body?”

“Her magic. I don’t think any of you understand just how powerful she is. She can generate another body for herself. It will take some time, but she will do it.”

“How much time?”

Isla shrugged. “Weeks. Months if we’re lucky.”

Lucan raked a hand through his hair. “Saints help us.”

“Tell us of your and Deirdre’s connection,” Fallon urged.

Isla would rather not, but they deserved the truth. They needed to know just how dangerous she was to them so they would let her go. She took in a deep breath and felt Hayden’s gaze on her once again.

He stood to the side of her, watching. Always watching. It should unnerve her, but there was something comforting and secure in his gaze. Something hot and provocative that awoke an emotion inside herself she had never felt before.

The others — and there were many others — were across from her with various expressions from dismay to anger to concern to pity. She couldn’t blame them. The Warriors had assumed they’d killed Deirdre.

If only that had been the case.

“It might be better if I start at the beginning,” she said. “There is much I think will help you all understand why your gods were unbound.”

Fallon nodded in agreement.

Isla licked her lips and pulled up the memories of that fateful day so many centuries ago. “I lived in a small, obscure village made up strictly of Druids. We saw very few outsiders, and when they did come, they came for our wisdom and healing.”

“You were a mie,” Cara said.

“Aye. My father was the village baker. We lived simply, as did everyone in the village. It was a beautiful place next to a loch and surrounded by a thick forest. I went into the forest daily to gather herbs, but one day everything changed.”

Lucan set aside his goblet after taking a long drink. “What happened?”

“I was with my sister and niece. Grania was just three summers and the joy of my life. I was holding her while Lavena picked some herbs when the wyrran and men appeared. The men weren’t Warriors, but they had strength like nothing I had ever seen.”

Isla’s stomach churned each time she relived that fateful day. “Grania was pulled from my arms. Lavena and I were then bound and taken to Cairn Toul. Deirdre had wanted Lavena because of her ability to see into the future, because Deirdre was searching for someone.”

“Who?” Quinn asked.

“The MacLeod Warrior.”

Isla waited for that to sink in as the brothers looked at each other. She glanced at Hayden to find his gaze narrowed on her as if he didn’t believe a word she said. In his place, she probably wouldn’t believe her either. But what good would it do for her to lie now? The truth was better for everyone.

Fallon was the first to turn back to her. “Explain yourself.”

“Deirdre had found scrolls hidden in her village. One scroll was the spell to unbind your gods, and in that scroll was one name. MacLeod.”

“Why our clan?” Lucan asked.

Isla shrugged. “That I cannot answer. But tell me this. Did men go missing from your clan about once every generation? Were they your strongest warriors?”

“Aye,” Fallon replied softly.

“That was Deirdre. She was trying to find the one who housed the god.”

Quinn snorted in disgust. “When that didn’t work she brought your sister to her.”

“She did. My sister was able to see parts of the future. I was an added bonus, and with both me and Grania in Deirdre’s control, Lavena didn’t have much of a choice. My sister tried to fight Deirdre, but … Deirdre has her ways.”

Isla broke off, remembering when Deirdre had Lavena raped in an effort to break her. She could still hear her sister’s screams, still remember the blood and the way the man had enjoyed Lavena fighting him. Just recalling that awful experience made Isla want to gag.

Something touched her hand. Isla looked down to find Marcail and a goblet full of wine. Marcail’s eyes were filled with sorrow, and a part of Isla broke in that moment. No one knew of this story besides Deirdre. And no one had ever felt compassion for Isla before.

“Go on,” Marcail said before she returned to Quinn’s side.

Isla took a drink of the wine, letting it slide down her throat and burn her stomach as it settled there. “Lavena finally broke. Neither of us realized just what Deirdre wanted from her until it was too late. We thought Lavena would try to call up the future, but Deirdre put her in the blue flames, magical flames that would keep Lavena alive but unable to function on her own, where she remained until a few days ago.”

“How long was she in there?” Lucan asked.

Isla looked into the goblet and the red liquid. “Five hundred years.”

Sound filled the hall as everyone began talking at once. There was only one that was silent. Her watcher, Hayden.

Fallon banged his empty goblet on the table. “Quiet. I want to hear the rest of this.” He turned to Isla. “Go on.”

“Lavena’s gift of seeing the future couldn’t be called up at will. It would come to her sporadically. In the blue flames Deirdre was able to add her black magic with Lavena’s to help channel specific things, namely finding the MacLeod who had the god.

“It took Lavena about a year before she saw what Deirdre wanted. In her vision Lavena said it wasn’t one MacLeod, but three. Three brothers, to be exact, who shared the god. The three would be the strongest of their clan. After that, Deirdre had only to watch and wait.”

Quinn rubbed his jaw and sighed. “That’s when she attacked our clan.”

“And then captured you. She didn’t expect your escape, though. You were lucky.”

“How did she find the rest of us?” Hayden asked.

Isla fidgeted with the goblet. “Through my sister, of course. Deirdre had her seeking anything to do with the gods as she built her army. At the time Druids were plentiful. Her wyrran hunted them mercilessly, and as they grew scarcer, Deirdre used the spring equinox to find more.

“It was only recently that Deirdre had Lavena also searching for more Druids. It’s how she found Marcail.”

Lucan rose and began to pace, his agitation clear. Cara eventually took his hand and pulled him back down beside her. Despite everything the MacLeod brothers had been through, each of them had a woman who obviously loved him.

“What happened to you in the mountain?” Lucan asked.

Isla rubbed her fingers on the rim of the goblet. This part of the telling was going to be the most difficult. “Deirdre was going to kill me and claim my magic, but for some reason she changed her mind. She wanted to utilize me as she had Lavena so she set about using the same tactics to break me. They didn’t work.”

Duncan braced his hands on the table and slowly rose. Isla watched as his lips lifted in a sneer. He hated her, and he had every right to despise her.

“You evidently broke, though. What did she offer you? Power?” Duncan demanded.

It was Duncan’s twin, Ian, who jerked Duncan back down on the bench. The only way to tell the twins apart was that Duncan’s dark hair hung down his back and Ian’s was cropped close to his head.

To Isla’s surprise, Hayden had moved away from his position when Duncan had risen. It was only after Duncan had resumed his seat that Hayden once again leaned against the wall as if he were leisurely listening to a story.

Hayden’s response baffled Isla. The blond Warrior clearly didn’t like her, but why would he then act like he was going to defend her?

“Isla?” Quinn urged.

She sighed and nodded. “Deirdre threatened to kill Grania if I didn’t do as she asked.”

Fallon raised a brow. “And what did she ask of you?”

“To become a drough.”

“Which you did,” Lucan said. “When did the mind connection take place?”

“A few months later. Deirdre expected that once I became drough that she could control me, that the evil would make me more susceptible to her cause.”

Fallon shook his head in confusion. “I doona understand. Didn’t the evil do exactly that?”

“It tried, but since I performed the drough ceremony under duress, I wasn’t giving my soul completely to the evil. In withholding a part of myself, I was able to gain control of the malice within me.”

Isla saw the doubt on the faces before her, and though they might not believe, she had battled the evil every day for centuries. She knew the truth.

“I managed to fool Deirdre for a time, but then I began to question her. She began to doubt me.”

Fallon tapped a finger on the arm of his chair. “How have you been alive for five hundred years?”

Isla swallowed, her throat dry and raw. She knew what she was about to tell the group would surprise them. “Deirdre managed to link her mind with mine, thereby controlling me.”

“What happens when she does that?” Lucan asked.

“There is pain as if my head is splitting open. Then, I hear Deirdre’s voice in my mind commanding me to carry out some order. I’m powerless to fight against it no matter how many times I try.”

Quinn frowned. “What exactly does she want you to do?”

“To kill.”

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