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Cairn Toul Mountain Summer 1603
Hayden Campbell swore viciously as he turned over yet another frozen body on the rocky slope.
"This one is dead," Fallon MacLeod yelled from his position farther up the mountain.
"They're all dead." Hayden blew out a breath that puffed around him, ignoring the frigid temperatures and steady snowfall. Though he felt the cold it didn't bother him because he wasn't quite human.
He was a Warrior, an immortal with an archaic god inside him that gave him powers and immeasurable strength—among other things.
Hayden rubbed the ice from his eyelashes as his gaze wandered over the snow-covered slope and the numerous dead Druids. "We should have returned sooner."
Fallon, another Warrior, walked toward him with heavy footsteps, his green eyes grave. "Aye, we should have, but my concern was for Quinn. We scarcely got him and Marcail out of this cursed mountain in time as it was."
"I ken." Hayden gazed at the hated mound of rock. He had always loved looking at the great mountains, but being locked in Cairn Toul for too many decades and forced to watch the evil that grew there took away the pleasure the mountains had once given him. "Damn Deirdre."
Deirdre, the one who began it all, was finally dead. She was a Druid, but from a sect who gave their blood and souls to diabhul, the Devil, for the use of black magic. She was, or had been, a drough.
There was another set of Druids, the mie, who used the pure magic born in all Druids to bond with nature and harness the natural power that came to all of them. The mie used their magic to heal and aid those in need, not to destroy as the drough and Deirdre did.
But Hayden and the other Warriors had defeated her. It had cost many lives, however. Too many lives.
Hundreds of Druids had been imprisoned in the mountain for Deirdre to drain their blood and harvest their magic to add to her own. No one knew how old Deirdre was, but if Hayden could believe the rumors, she had lived for nearly a thousand years, going back to the time just after Rome was driven from the land by Warriors.
The Warriors had been made thanks to both the drough and mie in response to the cries of the Celts for help, and Hayden couldn't fault the Druids. Rome had been slowly suffocating Britain, ending all that made Britain great. And the Celts had been unable to defeat them.
The Druids had done what they could for Britain. They had no idea the primeval gods they called up from Hell would refuse to leave the men they took control of.
The gods were so potent the Druids couldn't remove them. The only thing the Druids could do was bind the gods inside the men after Rome had been defeated and departed Britain's shores.
And so the gods moved from generation to generation through the bloodline and into the strongest warriors. Until Deirdre found the MacLeods and unbound their god.
Deirdre's reign of evil had lasted far longer than Hayden liked to think about. Deirdre might have been powerful, but even a drough could be killed.
Hayden grinned, reliving the moment Deirdre's neck had been crushed by another Warrior and Hayden had engulfed her in fire.
"What are you smiling at?" Fallon asked, breaking into Hayden's thoughts.
Fallon was leader of their group of Warriors. They had banded together to fight Deirdre and the wickedness she spawned. Though they had expected it would take years, Deirdre had changed everything when she took the youngest MacLeod brother, Quinn, captive. That's when they had taken the fight to Deirdre.
"The fact Deirdre is dead," Hayden explained. "Everything we've been fighting against all these years is over. Gone."
Fallon smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. "It's a wonderful feeling, isn't it? Now all we have to worry about is having the Druids find the spell to bind our gods once more. Then we can live as mortal men."
Binding the gods was all Fallon, Lucan, and Quinn spoke about. But the MacLeod brothers had wives, so they yearned to have their gods gone from their lives.
Hayden, on the other hand, wasn't sure he wanted to be mortal again. He was too powerless that way.
"I'm going to look on the other side of the mountain," Fallon said. "Maybe we'll find someone alive."
"I think the ones who could make it out of the mountain did. It was the weather that killed them."
Fallon blew out a ragged breath and clenched his jaw. "We should look inside the mountain, then. Some might have been too afraid to leave."
They both turned to the door that stood ajar amid the rock as if waiting for them to enter its wicked domain. All Druids were gifted with a certain power. Deirdre's had been moving stone. She had instructed the mountain to shift and form so that she had a palace inside it, shielded from the world.
Hidden from all.
Countless Druids had died heinously, and many a Highlander had been brought to her to have his god unbound. If he didn't house a god, he was killed.
Even now Hayden could smell the stench of death and iniquity that permeated from the mountain, could still feel the helplessness which had weighed heavily on his shoulders while he had been locked in one of the various prisons.
But he had been one of the lucky ones. Hayden had broken free and escaped, determined to fight Deirdre and her bid to rule the world.
"Why would anyone stay inside that place?" Hayden murmured as unease rippled down his spine. He fisted his hands and forced himself to stand still and not give into the urge to turn away from the malevolent mountain.
Fallon scratched his jaw, his gaze thoughtful. "I doona know, but it's worth a look. We freed these people, and it's our responsibility to make sure they return to their homes."
Hayden considered Fallon's words. "They may not want our help. We are, after all, Warriors. They might not be able to tell the difference between us and the Warriors who allied themselves to Deirdre."
"True. But I must look either way. I wasna held longer than a few days in the mountain so it doesn't hold the memories for me as it does for you."
Hayden might not want to go into Cairn Toul, but he would. "I'm not afraid."
Fallon put his hand on Hayden's shoulder and looked into his eyes. "I would never think that, my friend. I would not torment you, though." He dropped his arm and smiled. "Besides, I want to return to Larena as quickly as I can. You give a final look over the mountain while I go inside."
Before Hayden could object Fallon was gone. He used the power his god gave him to "jump" inside the mountain in the blink of an eye. Fallon couldn't jump somewhere he had never been before, but the use of his power had saved them countless times.
They all had different powers. For Hayden, Ouraneon, the god of massacre which was inside him, gave him the ability to call up and control fire. There were other differences as well. Each god favored a color, so every Warrior transformed to that color when he released his god.
Yet, for all their differences, there was a great deal they had in common, like strength, speed, enhanced senses, as well as deadly claws and sharp fangs. The most disturbing, though, was that their eyes changed to the same color as their god.
It had taken Hayden a long time to get used to that. He hadn't seen his own eyes, but he could imagine how he looked when the whites of his eyes disappeared and his entire eye turned red.
As much as Hayden had rebelled and fought the god within him, that same god allowed him to defeat Deirdre. With Deirdre dead and his family massacred by a drough sent by Deirdre, there was nothing in this world for Hayden to do.
For so many years he had roamed Scotland, watching the world change around him while he hunted droughs. Deirdre had taunted him that she had sent a drough to kill his family as she tortured him day after day. So he fought against Deirdre while seeking his vengeance on the droughs.
Now there was no place for him in this new world. There was no place for him anywhere.
He continued his wandering of the mountain, looking for anyone who might still be alive, as he thought of what his next move might be. He had stayed in Scotland because of Deirdre and his revenge, but maybe he would travel and see the different countries others spoke about.
Hayden leaned against a boulder and raked his hand through his damp hair. The snowfall had begun to grow more dense, the flakes thicker and heavier, but it didn't hamper his superior eyesight. They stuck to his eyelashes and covered everything in a blinding white blanket.
Hours went by with Hayden locating nothing but more dead. The fact they were most likely Druids only made the findings more difficult to bear. Druids might have magic, but they were susceptible to the elements as any human was, and thanks to Deirdre's affinity for killing them, the Druids were becoming more and more scarce.
A shout from Fallon let Hayden know it was time to return to MacLeod Castle. As Hayden began to turn away something caught his eye.
He paused and narrowed his gaze when a gust of wind lifted a lock of long, black hair in the snow. Though Hayden knew the woman was most likely dead, he hurried to her anyway, hopeful he would leave the mountain with at least one alive. He spotted the pool of bright red blood in the snow that gave him hope she was still alive.
"Fallon," he barked while scraping away the flurries and ice from around the small, much too slim body.
The woman was lying on her stomach, an arm bent with her hand near her face and matted ebony hair obscuring her features. Her fingers were slim as they dug into the snow as if she had tried to crawl away.
Hayden could only imagine the pain she had been put through, the heartache Deirdre had given her. He held his breath as he put a finger beneath her nose and felt a soft stirring of air.
At least they would leave the cursed mountain with one life. He reached for her and paused again. He didn't want to hurt her, but it had been so long since he had been gentle, he wasn't sure he knew how. All he knew was battle and death.
Maybe he should allow Fallon care for her. But as soon as the thought went through his mind, Hayden rejected it. He found her, he would see to her. He didn't know why, he just knew that it was important to him.
Hayden blew out a breath and slowly, firmly placed his hands on the woman's body before he tenderly turned her over. Her arm fell to the side, lifeless and still. Disquiet settled in his gut like a stone.
He shifted so that he leaned over her, shielding her from the onslaught of snow. Once he had her in his arms, Hayden brushed the hair from her face to see her incredibly long black lashes spiked with frozen snow.
He felt something shift inside him when he saw her face was pale as death, but even beneath the scratches, dried blood, and ice he could see her beauty, her timeless allure.
She had high cheekbones and a small, pert nose. Her brows were as black as the midnight sky and arched over her eyes. Her lips were full, sensual, and her neck long and lean.
But it was her cream-colored skin, so flawless and perfect, that made him reach out and stroke her cheek with the back of his finger.
A shock of something primitive and urgent went through his body like a bolt of lightning. He couldn't take his eyes from her, couldn't stop touching her.
Her body struggled for breath, struggled for life, proving she was a fighter. Even with the elements taking the breath from her one heartbeat at a time, she didn't give up.
Something inside him broke at that moment. He hadn't been able to save his family or the many Druids on Cairn Toul, but he would save this woman, whoever she was.
A feeling of protectiveness wound through him. It had been so long since he'd felt protective of anyone or anything that he almost hadn't recognized the emotion. Now that he did, however, it grew stronger the longer he held her in his arms.
He would make sure she survived. He would ensure she was protected at all times. It wouldn't make up for the lives of his family or the Druids, but he had to do it.
Hayden found himself wishing she'd open her eyes so he could see them. He wanted to give his oath to her right then, for her to know he would fight with her. Instead, she lay unconscious in his arms.
His vow would have to wait, but nothing could stop him from pledging himself to her.
"Does she live?" Fallon asked.
Hayden glanced up, startled to find Fallon near when he hadn't heard him approach. That wasn't like Hayden, but then again, he had never held such a lovely woman in his arms before, especially one who needed him as she did. "Just. She's bleeding badly, though I cannot tell where she is wounded."
"Judging by the blood on your hand, I would say somewhere on her back."
Hayden looked at the hand holding her and grimaced. He doubted they had much time to save her. For the first time in … ages … the need to defend, to shield someone consumed him, drove him. "She's shivering."
"Then let's get her out of here," Fallon said.
Hayden lifted her small frame in his arms. She was light, but through her clothes he could feel the sumptuous curves that proclaimed her a woman. He gave a nod to Fallon and waited. Fallon laid his hand on Hayden's arm, and in a blink they were standing in the great hall of MacLeod Castle.
"God's teeth!" someone yelled at their sudden appearance in the castle.
"Sonya!" Fallon bellowed.
The hall swarmed with Warriors, but Hayden only had eyes for the woman. He wanted, nay needed, her to survive, and was surprised to find himself praying—something he hadn't done since before his family's murder. He decided then and there he would protect her with his life.
He felt the warm stickiness of her blood as it traveled from his hand down his arm to his elbow to drop on the stone floor. Her breathing was ragged, her body so still he would think her dead if he didn't see her chest rising and falling, slowly but surely.
"Sonya, hurry!" Hayden shouted. The thought of holding another dead body in his arms made Hayden's heart quicken with dread.
Death surrounded him, always had, most likely always would. But now, he wanted life for this small woman, whoever she was.
There was a whooshing sound as Broc landed in the great hall, Sonya in his arms. Broc folded his large, sleek indigo wings against him as he set Sonya on her feet and pushed his god down and returned to normal.
Sonya said not a word as she rushed to Hayden. The single, thick braid holding her fiery hair hung down her back with small tendrils curling about her face.
"Put her on the table," Sonya instructed him.
Hayden didn't want to relinquish his hold on the woman, but he knew he had no choice if he wanted her to survive. He glanced at her, at her parted lips and ethereal face. "She's cold."
"And I'll get her warm as soon as I heal her," Sonya told him, her amber eyes meeting his gaze. "Let me heal her, Hayden."
Quinn took a step toward the table. "Broc—"
"I know," Broc answered.
Hayden looked between the two Warriors to find their gazes locked on the female in his arms. There was something in their tone, something he should recognize, but he couldn't focus on anything but the woman.
He forced his attention back to Sonya. "I think the wound is on her back."
"Then lay her on her stomach," Sonya said as she pushed up the sleeves of her gown.
"I'll help," said Lucan's wife, Cara.
Hayden glanced down at Cara. They'd had their differences, and in some ways still did since Cara carried drough blood in her veins. She might never have undergone the ritual, but it was enough that Hayden had wanted to see her dead.
It was only out of respect for the MacLeods that Hayden left Cara alone. Still, it rankled him to have her near. Evil bred evil, it was just a matter of time before it took Cara.
The next thing Hayden knew, the other two women of the castle, Marcail and Larena, were also there. All but Larena were Druids. Larena was the only female Warrior, and she had the distinction of being Fallon's wife.
Matter of fact, the only female who wasn't mated to a MacLeod was Sonya, and Hayden had seen the way Broc watched the Druid when he thought no one was looking.
"I need her gown cut," Sonya said.
Hayden didn't hesitate to allow a red claw to lengthen from his fingertip. He sliced the woman's gown with one swipe, and when the gown fell open to reveal the female's back, the entire hall sucked in a breath. Hayden's gut clenched and his blood turned to ice.
"Holy hell," Quinn murmured and rubbed a hand over his mouth.
There were no words as Hayden stared at the scars that crisscrossed the slender back of the woman on the table. Whoever this female was, she had suffered greatly and horrifically. And often. If he felt protective of her before, it was nothing compared to what arose in him then.
He would find who did this to her, find them and make them suffer as they had made her suffer. Then he would kill them.
However, it was the wound on her shoulder which drew Hayden's gaze. "What happened to her?"
Sonya leaned close and poked at the bleeding injury. "Looks like a blade of some sort. I need to clean it to be sure what happened, but from what I can see I think the weapon pierced her skin, and then was dragged from her shoulder down her back to her shoulder blade."
In an instant a bowl of water was placed next to Sonya. She wrung out a cloth and began to clean the woman's wound. Agonizing moments later, Sonya lifted her head, her lips compressed in a tight line.
"There's magic involved in this wound. I cannot tell if it caused the wound or only made it fester."
Lucan and Fallon moved to stand on either side of Quinn, who was at the woman's feet. Broc had also shifted closer to Sonya. It was then Hayden looked around the hall and noticed every Warrior at MacLeod Castle now ogled the female.
Hayden's gaze swung to Quinn to find the youngest MacLeod watching him with sharp, pale green eyes. Before he could ask Quinn why he was staring, the woman let out a low moan full of suffering and agony.
Sonya stilled. A heartbeat later she tossed down the cloth and lifted her hands over the woman's wound, palm down, fingers splayed. Sonya's eyes closed, and Hayden could feel her magic fill the hall as she began to heal the wound.
Cara and Marcail soon joined their magic with Sonya's, but nothing they did seemed to assist the healing. The woman let out a scream and tried to jerk from the table.
Hayden held her down, careful not to touch her wound, but the more magic the Druids used, the worse the woman became. Frustration welled up within Hayden while he watched helplessly as the woman suffered.
"What are you doing to her?" he demanded of Sonya.
The Druid's amber eyes snapped open to glare at him. Sonya reached over and took Cara's and Marcail's arms and lowered them. As soon as they did the woman stopped her movements and laid still and quiet.
It was like she had died. Yet Hayden could still see the breath leaving her body, could still see the blood flow from the wound.
"Something isn't right," Sonya said.
Marcail shook her head, her rows of tiny, sable braids on the crown of her head moving against her cheek. "It was almost as if she fought against our magic."
"What could possibly do that?" Cara asked. Her mahogany eyes sought out Sonya, but Sonya didn't answer.
Instead, Sonya moved aside the tangled mass of ebony locks from the woman's neck. With slow movements, she tugged at the thin leather strap until she found what she was looking for.
Hayden took one look at the Demon's Kiss dangling from Sonya's fingers and felt the same betrayal and fury he had on the night of his family's murder.
Copyright © 2011 by Donna Grant