Hidden behind a false panel, ten-year-old Calin MacLeod covered his ears with sweaty palms. The screams echoing throughout Brycen Castle were loud enough to loosen his teeth.
Lena Kinnon cried for mercy with every gut-wrenching contraction, but didn’t receive the slightest morsel of compassion from the many men present. Her position held no dignity, sprawled atop the council table like a sacrificial lamb. The wool of her soiled sark draped between her raised knees and provided her little privacy. No one wiped her brow or offered soothing words of comfort.
A woman was supposed to suffer during childbirth to pay for the sins of Eve. Even at his young age, Calin knew the laws of the church. He also knew Lena had already suffered more than any woman in Clan Kinnon. The bruises speckling her pale skin were evidence of the constant torture she endured at the hands of her ruthless husband.
The sliver of space between the wooden planks where Calin hid was no wider than the trunk of a sapling, but provided a view of his da, Laird MacLeod, who stood against a stone pilaster opposite Laird Kinnon. Da’s dark hair had grayed at the temples over the recent months, and his face sagged in weariness, but his rigid stance displayed his contained rage. With his eyes narrowed, Da stroked the golden bull’s head engraved into the signet ring he wore and glared at his enemy.
Two pairs of MacLeod warriors flanked each side of his da, while four Kinnon warriors surrounded Laird Baen Kinnon. All were unarmed as was previously agreed upon by both lairds.
“Ye keep screamin’, wife. It’ll cleanse your black English soul.” Laird Kinnon paced the council chamber, a sneer twisting his pitted face.
Calin hated the chieftain of his neighboring clan as much as his da did. Laird Kinnon was a cold-hearted demon. Anyone who would beat his lady wife during her childbearing time walked upon this earth with the devil’s black blood flowing through his veins.
“Ye bear me another bitch and it will be your last.”
“Please, Baen, have ye no mercy? Send for the midwife, please.” Lena gripped the sides of her belly and arched her back.
Laird Kinnon slapped her across the face with an open palm. Sweat sprayed over the tabletop. “Still your tongue, wife, or I’ll cut it out.” He spread his arms wide, gesturing to the many warriors present. “There be plenty o’ eager hands awaitin’ to catch my male bairn as soon as ye free him from your spoiled womb.”
Calin bit his tongue to avoid cursing the man as venomously as his da always did. Calin had lived his whole life without a mam to kiss his cheek or offer him praise. Over the past few months, Lena had been like a mother to him. She was kind and gentle and Laird Kinnon should burn in the deepest pit of hell for the way he abused his lady wife. Calin didn’t have to be an aged warrior to know this was wrong. Lena’s child was nothing more to Laird Kinnon than a binding contract.
A contract that affected Calin’s future. Which was precisely why he’d disobeyed his da’s direct order not to follow him to the Kinnon keep when word of Lena’s lying-in arrived. If Lena bore a daughter, the babe would become his betrothed.
Calin and his friend, Kendrick Neish of Clan Kinnon, had discovered the secluded compartment just two months past after stumbling into the pitch-black caverns beneath the castle. Since then, they had become privy to every council meeting between their clans. They knew of war and how the English wanted to reign over Scotland. Both had heard the gruesome tales of entire villages being slaughtered. Neither he, nor Kendrick wanted their clans to suffer such a fate. Calin knew they were supposed to be enemies, but they wanted the same thing—an alliance.
For five hours, Calin had hugged his twisted limbs in the narrow space while Lena labored in the corner. His arse tingled, and his toes had gone numb hours before inside his leather brogues. The dank odor of moldy floor rushes drifted into his hiding place. A prayer floated into his ear.
“Fàilte dhut a Mhoire, tha thu lan de na gràsan…” In the Gaelic tongue, Father Harrald prayed to the Blessed Mother while he paced the edge of the chamber. The granite beads of his rosary clattered with his every movement. The young priest had been summoned to perform the baptism or to administer Last Rites in the event this child didn’t survive—as Lena’s previous three babes had not.
Lena pushed and Calin sucked in air.
He exhaled when she did. Her whole body convulsed, his shivered. Wet ropes of black hair clung to her face and neck. Propped on her elbows, her head fell back. Her mouth opened, and she screamed in agony.
One of the warriors caught the babe just as it slid from Lena’s body.
Calin held his breath awaiting the outcome.
“A lass, Laird Kinnon,” the old man announced grimly while he held the babe by the ankles and slapped her rump. He then laid her atop Lena’s quivering abdomen.
Lena pulled the crying child to her breast and stroked her newborn skin. Relief washed over her face and tears spilled over her cheeks when she smiled at Da. All would be well now.
“Seal off the hall and bring me the other child.” The cord still attached his infant daughter to his wife when Laird Kinnon commanded his seneschal. His dark eyes blazed with contempt as he stared directly at Da. “Ye will ne’er hold claim to my land. Nor will ye e’er touch my wife again.”
“I have ne’er wanted your land.” Da stepped closer to Lena.
“But ye dinnae deny touching my wife.”
Da glanced at Lena.
A dozen broad-shouldered men materialized from the darkened recesses of Brycen Castle. Their weapons flickered beneath golden wall torches. A raw-boned nursemaid, escorted by another warrior, entered the chamber, her fear evident in sunken wide eyes. In her arms, she held another babe swaddled in stripped wool, its fists swatted the air. With trembling hands, she placed the babe in the crook of Laird Kinnon’s arm.
Confused, Calin studied the exchange. Laird Kinnon had agreed to unite their clans if Lena bore a daughter.
Laird Kinnon turned to his warriors. “Send their miserable souls to the devil. All of them.” His tone was devoid of mercy. Of compassion. Of any emotion except contempt.
He stepped out of the keep onto the stone rampart. “I have a son!” he shouted.
The villagers of Dalkirth roared their approval while the words echoed in Calin’s ears.
Nay! ’Tis a lie! He gawked in horror as the shadowed knights charged his clansmen. Da’s devoted seneschal used a flaming pitch-pine torch to defend the attack. His efforts were futile. With one swing of a halberd, a Kinnon warrior beheaded him. Another fiend slashed one of the MacLeod warriors from gullet to navel. Fists clutched enemy plaid as he fell to his knees.
Calin’s heart tripped. His hands flattened against the panel. His nose pressed into the crack. Oh saints, help them!
The saints could no more help his kinsmen than the bits of wood they used as shield and sword. The Kinnon warriors buried the steel of their weapons into the MacLeod’s flesh, spreading pools of dark blood over their crossbarred plaids. Slaughtered before his eyes were his Da’s most loyal kinsmen. Calin’s stomach convulsed and saliva grew thick in his mouth. He wanted to run and hide his eyes from the nightmare.
Standing amid the four fallen men, Da was trapped. His hand slid to the empty scabbard at his hip. There was no weapon. No claymore to defend himself against this preplanned attack. Six Kinnons surrounded Da. His father turned to Lena.
Calin froze. Unshed tears scalded his eyes. Run, Da! he screamed in his head, but instead, his da fell upon Lena. He brushed the tears from her cheeks then pressed his lips to hers.
A single warrior cast a shadow over his da like a demon cloaked in black mist. Leather-clad hands gripped the hilt of a battle-axe and raised the lethal weapon over his head. In one thrust, he buried the steel between Da’s shoulders.
Lena screamed as his body slid off her and crumpled to the floor.
Calin choked on the knot in his throat as the bloody massacre branded an image in his mind. His pulse pounded in his neck, making his cries hard to swallow. Terrified they would find him, he splayed his violently shaking fingers over his eyes, all the while chastising himself for cowardice. His world went black, along with his mind, his heart, his soul.
The dying groans of suffering drummed through his ears, but the scream slicing through the air brought sight back to his eyes.
Shame flooded Calin as he watched the same warrior unsheathe a black dirk from his stocking. He held Lena’s chin while he slashed the sharp sgian dubh across her throat. With her infant daughter nuzzling at her breast, Lena’s head fell to the side, giving Calin one last look into crystal-blue eyes before the terror in her face vanished along with her spirit.
The warrior’s leathered hand hovered over the nape of the babe. His other hand held the weapon that would end her short life. The coppery taste of blood pooled on Calin’s tongue from where he bit the inside of his cheek.
Father Harrald dropped to his knees at the warrior’s feet. “Save your soul and cease. Please, cease. I beg of ye. The others had been baptized. She must be baptized.”
The Kinnon warrior hoisted the priest up by the hood of his habit and pointed his dirk at one of the other warriors. “Confess.” The clansmen gave their confessions one by one, binding Father Harrald to clerical secrecy. After the last warrior reconciled his sins, he shoved the priest toward Lena. “Ye may proceed with the rites. Someone will return to collect the babe.”
The men vanished into the shadows from whence they came.
The violent turn of events had Calin near to retching. He gripped his churning gut with clenched fingers and stared at the babe still nestled atop her dead mother’s bosom—daughter to the demon who murdered his father, but also his betrothed. He didn’t know whether to hate her or protect her. He had nary a doubt her brief life would tragically end in much the same way as Lena’s first three daughters.
The fire’s reflection flickered off the blade Father Harrald used to sever the cord binding the babe to her mother. The priest washed the remnants of birth from her skin and laid her in a pile of linens next to Lena. His voice quavered with the administration of blessed sacraments. “An tAthair, An Mac, An Spiorad Naomh.” Signing the cross over the babe, he blew breath upon her, and baptized her with holy oils.
Calin crawled from his hiding place, wiping the wetness from his cheeks. He raked the patch of brown hair falling loosely over his brow, while stepping over the blood and carnage. Unable to tear his gaze from his da’s body, he let the sickly sweet stench of death fill his nostrils and revive his spirit with the promise of vengeance. The metallic acid thickened in his throat, but he swallowed his fear. His grief. His newfound hate. He had but one purpose now—avenge his father’s death. And to do so, he needed the babe.
Father Harrald flinched. “Young Calin, ye must not be here.”
Ignoring the priest, Calin knelt at Da’s side. He brushed a lock of graying hair from his da’s damp brow and willed him to stand, but his skin paled as a pool of blood welled beneath him. Calin bent to his ear. “Blood of my blood. I’ll not fail ye, Da. I vow it.”
Father Harrald’s hand rested on Calin’s shoulder. “They’ll murder ye, just as sure as they will the babe. Ye must go.”
“Father Harrald, ye will see that Da and these men are returned to MacLeod soil. Get word to Uncle Kerk. Tell him I am weel, and I’ll be home soon.” Calin wished his voice didn’t falter. He needed to be a man, a warrior. He swallowed hard then pulled the signet ring from Da’s limp hand and set the engraved crest against a glowing ember in the hearth.
Calin couldn’t meet the priest’s eyes. “An eye for an eye. She’s the key to the alliance, and she belongs to me.” He spoke with defiance as he handled the squirming babe. He carried her to the hearth and set her atop a wooden basin. Using a strip of heavy wool to retrieve the signet ring from a hot coal, he rolled her onto her side and branded her bottom with the MacLeod crest. She let out a shrill scream, followed by shuddering sobs. He wrapped the babe in linens, then secured her in Lena’s stripped arisaid, fastening the wool with her family brooch. He held her close and attempted to coo her into submission. One day he would tell her about her mam and how kind Lena had been to him.
So many questions stirred in Calin’s troubled mind, but one in particular needed answering. “I know ye heard Da’s confession last week. I also know ye are bound by the seal o’ the confessional, so I’ll understand if ye cannae answer my question.”
“What’s your question, my son?” Father Harrald scanned the entrance to the chamber.
“Da loved Lena Kinnon.” Calin paused with his gaze fixed on the newborn bundle. “Is this babe of my own blood?”
“Nay. Lena was swollen with her fourth child before she ever met your da. Rest assured, your young bride is not your sister. Now ye must go, quickly.”
Retrieving a torch from a wall bracket, Calin reentered the nook. The babe whimpered against his chest. A tiny hand swatted his chin. She was warm and smelled of innocence. He glanced over his shoulder at Da’s body, his eyes lowered. He should have done something. At least tried to stop them. He was weak, spineless. A coward.
Calin’s eyes found Father Harrald, his skin gray with worry. “What will ye tell them when they return for the babe?”
“I’ll tell them a warrior took her. ’Twill
not be a lie.”