THIRTY-FIVE

Fallon’s eyes flew open with the first crash. He sat up and looked over at Larena who was leaning on her elbow staring at him.

“What was that?” she asked.

Fallon shook his head the same time the second crash came. And then the howl. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.

“Get the Druids to safety,” Fallon told her as he leapt out of bed and tugged on his breeches.

Larena was right behind him as he raced from his chamber. Fallon followed the roars to Isla’s tower.

“Ah, shite,” Lucan said as he came to stand beside Fallon.

Quinn joined soon after. “We need to get up there.”

“Let me,” Broc said.

Fallon looked over his shoulder to find Camdyn, Ian, Duncan, Arran, Ramsey, and Malcolm behind him. “I think it’s going to take all of us.”

“I’ll go through the window,” Broc said.

Fallon started up the stars, each crash, each bellow getting louder and more violent. When he reached the door, something smashed into it, splintering the wood.

Quinn kicked in the door, and all Fallon could do was stare in stunned silence. Hayden was nude, his god free as he raked his red claws down the stone walls.

The bed had been sliced in half, the linens ripped to shreds. Hayden had thrown the table at the door, and it now lay splintered on the floor.

“Holy hell,” Quinn murmured. “She’s gone.”

Fallon had never seen a man so anguished, so devastated. “We’ve got to get him calmed down.”

Hayden suddenly turned to the doorway. The red eyes of his god flashed with anger and sorrow. “Isla’s gone, Fallon. She left. She left me.”

Lucan took a step into the room, and Hayden picked up the chair and threw it at him. Fallon didn’t waste another moment.

“We need to get him under control. It’s going to take all of us!” he bellowed over Hayden’s roar.

At that moment Broc busted through the window. Hayden swung toward him, his fangs bared. Fallon used that distraction to rush into the tower and wrap his arms around Hayden’s shoulders.

Hayden fought like a wild man, hitting and clawing and snapping with his fangs. It took all ten of them, even Malcolm, to subdue Hayden. Even then he fought them. Fallon knew Hayden would continue until he was dead, and he wasn’t about to lose a Warrior and a good friend.

Fallon wrapped a leg around Hayden’s and tripped him. They all fell to the floor. Hayden had fallen face down with the weight of them, his breathing ragged and hoarse.

“Listen to me, Hayden,” Fallon said through his own harsh breaths. “You doona know that she’s gone.”

Hayden groaned in misery and turned his head to the side. “The shield is gone. I felt her magic leave.”

Fallon’s gaze met Quinn’s. This was bad. Very bad. There was only one reason Isla would have left.

“Deirdre,” Quinn murmured.

“We can find Isla,” Lucan told Hayden. “We can find her and protect her.”

“She wants me to take her head,” Hayden said, not hearing Lucan. “How can I do that? I gave her my word. I promised her I wouldna let Deirdre hurt her anymore.”

Fallon jerked him. “Then help us. We’re going to need you, Hayden. Isla needs you. Protect her as I know you can.”

A moment later Hayden nodded and his red skin faded away as he once more took control of his body. Fallon motioned for the others to back away. He was the last to rise from Hayden.

“Where would she go?” Camdyn asked.

Hayden moved to his hands and knees before climbing to his feet. “As far from the castle as she could.”

“I’ll find her,” Broc said. “She couldna have gone far.”

“Far enough,” Hayden murmured as he lifted the bits of linens and blankets to look for his clothes.

Fallon walked to the door. “We’ll wait for you downstairs.”

Hayden’s chest ached. It felt as if his heart had been clawed out. He’d known there was a chance Isla would one day leave, but he hadn’t expected it so soon. He should have known with her aching head the day before.

He looked about the tower, disgusted with himself at the destruction he’d caused. He’d destroyed Isla’s things. Once he found her, he’d make it up to her.

If you find her. And if you find her in time.

Hayden didn’t want to think like that, but he knew he had no choice. He left off his shirt and hurried to put on his kilt. He wrapped the ends of the kilt around his waist and hurried to the hall.

No sooner had Hayden stepped from the stairs than Broc burst into the castle.

“Hayden!” Broc called. “Come with me. Now.”

He didn’t hesitate to follow Broc. He heard the others moving behind him, knew they would follow. Hayden raced from the castle and in one leap, vaulted over the gatehouse. He kept Broc’s flying form in his vision at all times.

It was the lightning that drew Hayden’s attention. It seemed to be centered over the sea, in almost the exact same place every time. Lightning didn’t react that way.

“Unless magic is involved,” he whispered to himself.

Hayden found Broc hovering at the edge of the cliffs to a beach he’d seen only once.

“Down,” Broc said.

Hayden jumped to the bottom. He landed smoothly and straightened. There was a sound behind him. He turned to find Quinn, Arran, Ian, and Duncan.

“We’re here to help,” Ian said. “Anything you need.”

“I need Isla.”

Broc dropped from the sky in a smooth movement and pointed out to see. “She’s there, Hayden. In the boat.”

Arran swore beneath his breath. “And I suppose the lightning is Deirdre?”

“Aye,” Hayden mumbled. “Have you seen this before, Broc?”

The winged Warrior turned his face away. “Once. It wasna a pretty sight.”

“But Isla is immortal like us. She heals.”

“Which will only cause her more pain.”

Hayden clenched his hands in aggravation. “What can we do? We need to get her away from Deirdre.”

“If that’s even possible,” Duncan said.

Hayden hated that he was right. If only Logan was there. Logan had control over water. He could have Isla back on the beach in a matter of moments.

“I’m going to swim to her,” Hayden said and pulled off his boots. “I willa let her suffer this alone.”

“You’ll likely die,” Arran said.

Nothing mattered without Isla. His life had been dull and gray, somber and empty. She had given him light and opened his heart. She had given him everything. He could do nothing less. “Then so be it.”

“Let me try,” Broc said before he flew into the air.

Hayden waited and watched as Broc flew to Isla. Broc landed in the boat, and almost immediately, a bolt of lightning slammed into him.

It threw Broc out of the boat and into the water. Still, the Warrior didn’t give up. He tried again, but each time he neared the small vessel, more lightning would strike.

“Enough,” Hayden said. He had given Broc his try, but if anyone was going to save Isla, it was him.

He strode toward the beach and removed his kilt. He’d swum the sea often enough to know its currents. Hayden dove into the water and started swimming with strong, sure strokes. He kept sight of the boat, but he saw nothing of Isla. He prayed she was in the bottom of the boat and not in the water somewhere.

The lightning began to hit more often, and it was striking near him as well as the boat. He swam fast enough that it was difficult for Deirdre to determine where he would be.

Finally, Hayden dove down deep and swam long distances beneath the water to confuse Deirdre. He stayed underneath the water until he saw the boat. Once he was beneath the boat, he surfaced.

He wiped the water from his eyes and moved behind the boat to push it toward shore. Hayden hadn’t gone very far when both Ian and Duncan’s heads popped out of the water.

“What are you doing?” Hayden demanded.

“Fishing,” Duncan said with a roll of his eyes.

Ian shook his head, a wry smile on his lips. “What do you think we’re doing, Hayden.”

“You’ll get yourself killed.” Hayden didn’t mind risking his own life, but no one else should.

Duncan moved to Hayden’s left and put his hands on the boat. “We are all of us family. This is what families do.”

Hayden was too speechless to do more than follow as the twins began to push the small vessel. They hadn’t gone very far when Deirdre’s lightning struck Hayden.

He cursed, his body frozen for several moments as her black magic ran through him. It left his entire body feeling as if he was roasting over a fire, not to mention he feared his head might explode.

“Hayden?” Ian called.

“I’m all right,” Hayden bit out. His pain was nothing compared to what Deirdre was doing to Isla. “Keep pushing.”

A moment later the lightning hit the boat, sending them flying backward. Hayden heard Isla cry out, the sound tearing at his soul. It was all he needed to spur him faster.

“Hurry,” he called to the twins.

Hayden couldn’t remember ever swimming so fast. Even with the continued lightning strikes in and around the boat, Hayden never stopped. He couldn’t. Isla needed him. He ignored the pain of the lightning and focused everything on getting Isla to the others.

It wasn’t until Broc and the others came to the boat that Hayden realized he had reached shore. He pushed Ian out of the way and looked in the boat to see Isla on her side, her arms over her head while her body shuddered in agony.

“Isla,” he whispered and lifted her in his arms.

She struggled against him, weak though it was. “Nay, Hayden. I need to stay away. Leave me be. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You cannot hurt me.”

She turned her tear-streaked face to him, her gaze filled with such remorse that it broke his heart. “But I have,” she said and shook again. “God forgive me, but I have. I knew you looked familiar, but it wasn’t until tonight that I remembered.”

“Stop,” Hayden said. He didn’t want her to say anything else. “It doesn’t matter.”

She cried harder, the tears raining down her cheeks. “It does.”

“Hayden,” Broc yelled. “The lightning is striking us. We need to get away.”

Isla pushed at Hayden’s chest, her face wreathed in anguish. “Let me go.”

“Nay,” he said. “Fight this. Fight her, Isla. I know you can.”

She shook her head. “I’m not strong enough. Let me go.”

“I willna.”

Her lips thinned, and he knew she was about to tell him her great secret. Before he could stop her she said, “I’m the drough that killed your family.”

He shut his eyes as her words sank into his mind. He expected to feel anger, betrayal, and even want her death. Instead, all he wanted to do was care for her, to protect her and cherish her. The past was over, his family long dead, and he had killed many droughs in his need for revenge.

Yet somehow, he wasn’t surprised to find it was her. It saddened him, but he knew she had been under Deirdre’s control. It wasn’t Isla’s fault anymore than it had been any of the droughs that he’d killed over the years. “I know. It doesna matter. Please. I need you.”

“Hayden,” she said and put her head against his chest.

She was giving up. His beautiful, brave, courageous Isla was giving up. He couldn’t allow her to do that. She had to know he would stand beside her, that he would shout to the world that she was his.

Before he could utter a word the lightning struck them. Hayden would have taken all the pain onto himself if he could have. It killed him to hear Isla scream, her body wracked with convulsions.

“You willna have her!” Hayden shouted to the sky. “Isla is no longer yours to command!”

Isla suddenly went limp in his arms. He knew the more Deirdre used her black magic the more Isla’s magic waned. Hayden knelt half on the beach, half in the water with Isla in his arms, silently praying that she lived.

He shook her gently until her eyes opened and focused on him. “I’m here to help you fight her,” he said. “I will stand by you no matter what. I was an utter fool before. It wasn’t until I awoke to find you gone that I realized how desperately I need you in my life.”

“Shh,” Isla said and placed a finger over his lips. “It’s all right. I’m not afraid to die. If you cannot take my head, one of the others will. Deirdre wants me to kill all of you, and I cannot hold her off much longer. I thought I was stronger, but I’m not.”

“Nay!” he bellowed. “No one is going to kill you. I willna let them. You are mine, Isla. I need you. I love you.”

As soon as he’d said the words he knew they were true, had always been true. Without Isla, he was nothing.

Isla couldn’t have heard Hayden correctly. Her expression must have told him as much because he smiled and stroked her face with his hand.

“I love you,” he said again, his eyes portraying the truth for her to see. “You’re a powerful Druid, Isla. I know you can defeat Deirdre. Live. Live for me. Live for us.”

She had claimed to have nothing to live for, but Hayden had just given her the best reason of all. Hope blossomed in her heart and spread its healing through her body.

Lightning hit the beach near them and out of the corner of her eye she saw one of the Warriors fall to his knees. Deirdre’s power was growing each time she struck someone, especially Isla. It was as if Deirdre was feeding off Isla’s magic and pain. And maybe she was.

Could Isla do as Hayden asked and fight? Did she dare try? She knew she had to do it for him.

Just as she was about to rise lightning struck her again. The pain was unbearable. Her body boiled, her blood thickened and slowed in her veins. She could hardly move her arms and legs, and always there was Deirdre’s voice commanding her to kill, waiting for Isla to grow weak enough that Deirdre could take over.

And then Hayden’s lips pressed to Isla’s.

Isla wrapped her arms around him and held on as if her life depended upon it — because it did. She felt the water lapping at her feet. She called to her magic and let the water feed it, grow it, until it swarmed around her.

“Kill them all!” Deirdre’s voice shouted in her head. “You cannot win, and the longer you fight me the more you will suffer, the more they will suffer.”

Fear tried to take hold of Isla, but she concentrated on her magic, on the feel of its purity and influence, and Hayden’s love. It grew and grew and grew until Isla felt the power of her magic.

That’s when she used her magic and shoved at Deirdre in her head. To Isla’s surprise, she felt Deirdre’s hold on her wane a sliver. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Isla did it again and again, each time gaining more ground on Deirdre.

Hayden never lifted his lips from hers. He kept her locked against his chest, giving her all of him that she needed. And Isla refused to let him down.

She kept shoving at Deirdre until at last there was a loud snapping sound in Isla’s head. A scream tore from her lips and her body stiffened as her head fell back.

Isla could feel Deirdre trying to maintain her power, but whatever Isla had done worked. There just needed one more bout of magic to break Deirdre’s hold forever.

Isla turned her head to Hayden and looked into his black eyes. “I love you.”

She heard Deirdre scream’s of rage, her threat of death, and then she was gone.

The only sounds to break the silence were the waves and someone cursing. Isla couldn’t stop shaking. She’d thought for sure her life was over.

She’d wanted to rejoice at hearing Hayden’s voice, but with Deirdre commanding her to kill everyone at the castle, Isla hadn’t wanted him near her for fear she would break under Deirdre’s magic and kill him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry for your family.”

His large hands rubbed her back as he brought her against him. “It wasn’t your fault. The blame lies with Deirdre. All of this is Deirdre’s fault.”

“Are either of you hurt?” Broc asked.

Isla shook her head, and Hayden answered, “Nay.”

“Good. Is she gone, Isla?”

Isla turned her head so she could see Broc and the others. “She’s gone from my mind. For good, I think.”

Broc smiled and opened his large wings. “I think Hayden can get you back to the castle. We’ll report this to Fallon and Lucan and the others.”

Quinn was the last to leave. He gave them a smile and a nod of his head before he turned on his heel and started up the path.

Isla swallowed, suddenly nervous now that they were alone. She slowly rose from Hayden’s arms and staggered to the sea. Once there, she let her magic rebuild her strength.

She felt Hayden behind her and shivered when his hands rested on her shoulders before skimming down her arms.

“You said you loved me.” His voice held an odd note, almost as if he was afraid to say it.

“Aye.”

“After everything I’ve done and said to you, how can you?”

She turned in his arms to face him. “Because of who you are. How could I not fall in love with you? And you? Do you still care for me despite what I’ve done?”

“I mourn the loss of my family. I want revenge for their murder, but I will get that vengeance when Deirdre is dead. You give me strength. You alone make me see the good in the world. I would be nothing without you.”

She felt tears sting her eyes again. He brushed away one that escaped to land on her cheek before he kissed her.

Isla rose up on her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck as he deepened the kiss. Their laughter mingled with the dawn as he lifted her and spun them about before falling into the water.

Somehow, some way, Isla had beaten Deirdre. But that’s not what she celebrated. Isla celebrated Hayden and the love they had found.

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