Connor felt nothing now, not the cold or the pain or the terrible loss. His mind was focused on one thought. He had to get to Alec Kincaid. Pledging his loyalty to the laird was the first step he must take to fulfill his father's wishes, and Connor wouldn't let anyone or anything stop him.
He lost track of time, and darkness was fast approaching. The sky was bright now with hundreds of orange streaks from the sun's too-quick descent behind the twin peaks directly ahead of him, but in a few minutes, those brilliant banners would also be gone. His desperation mounted with each step he took. He had to reach Kincaid before night closed in on him because he knew he would never be able to find his way in the dark. If he continued in darkness, he ran the risk of going in circles, or worse, backtracking the distance he'd already covered.
He could not fail. He started running again. He thought he was close to the border between his father's land and Kincaid's, yet he couldn't be absolutely certain. And then he heard shouts to halt from soldiers running toward him, but in his confusion he thought the enemy had chased him down and meant to kill him before he could keep his promises to his father. He staggered on until he couldn't take another step.
Dear God, he'd failed. He hadn't even begun yet and now he had failed. Kincaid was the beginning of his future, but Connor wasn't even strong enough to get to him.
"Can you speak, lad? Can you tell us what happened to you? You're covered in blood."
The soldiers surrounding him were all wearing Kincaid's colors. As that fact registered in Connor's mind, his legs gave out, and he went down hard on his knees. He wanted to close his eyes for just a moment, but he didn't dare. Not yet. He couldn't sleep until he had spoken to Kincaid. He needed to tell him what happened. He could trust him… He must…
He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, and then took a deep breath, threw back his head, and shouted, "Take me to my brother."
"Who is your brother, lad?" one of the sentries asked.
"By my father's command, from this day forward Alec Kincaid is my brother. He will not deny me."
It was all right to close his eyes now. He had fulfilled the first of his father's demands. The rest would come as soon as he had spoken to Kincaid. He would tell him where he'd hidden the injured soldiers, command that he go and get them… and he would tell his brother so much more…
Connor's last thought before he lost consciousness gave him peace. His father would be avenged.
And so it began.
It wasn't love at first sight.
Lady Brenna didn't want to be presented to company. She had far more important things to do with her day. Her nursemaid, a dour-faced woman with Godfearing ways and with clumped together, protruding front teeth, wouldn't listen to her arguments, however. She cornered Brenna in the back of the stables and lunged forward. Never one to let an opportunity or a little girl slip past her, the nursemaid lectured her charge all the way up the hill and across the muddy courtyard.
"Quit your squirming, Brenna. I'm stronger than you are, and I'm not about to let go. You've lost your shoes again, haven't you? And don't dare lie to me. I
can see your stockings peeking out. Why are you dragging that bridle behind you?"
Brenna lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "I forgot to put it back."
"Drop it this minute. You're always forgetting, and do you know why?"
"I don't pay attention to what I'm doing, like you tell me to, Elspeth."
"You don't pay attention to anything I tell you, and that's a fact. You're more trouble than all the others put together. Your older brothers and sisters have never given me a moment's worry. Even your baby sister knows how to behave herself, and she's still sucking on her fingers and wetting herself. I'm warning you, Brenna, if you don't change your ways and give your parents a little peace, God himself will have to stop His important work and come down here to talk to you. Just how are you going to feel about that?
You don't like it much when your papa has to sit you down on his knee and talk to you about your shameful behavior, now do you?"
"No, Elspeth. I surely don't like it. I try to behave. I really do."
She peeked up to see if the nursemaid believed she was contrite. She wasn't, of course, because she really didn't believe she'd done anything wrong, but Elspeth wouldn't understand.
"Don't you bat those big blue eyes at me, young lady. I don't believe you're the least bit sincere. Lord, but you smell. What have you gotten into?"
Brenna lowered her head and kept quiet. She'd been chasing after the piglets just an hour before, until the tanner put their mama back in the pen, and her peculiar stench was just a small price to pay for all the fun she'd had.
Her torture had only just begun. Even though she had had a bath two days before, she was bathed again, and in the middle of the day, of all times. She was scrubbed from head to toe, and so thoroughly, she had to cry about it. Elspeth wasn't at all sympathetic to her wails, and Brenna eventually got tired of crying.
She barely struggled at all while Elspeth dressed her in a blue gown and too-tight matching slippers. Her cheeks were pinched hard for color; her white blond tangles were brushed into curls, and she was then dragged back down to the hall. She would have to pass her mother's inspection before she could be left alone.
Her oldest sister, Matilda, was already seated at the table with her mother. Cook was there, too, going over supper arrangements with her mistress.
"I don't want to meet no company today, Mama. It's sorely wearisome for me."
Elspeth came up behind her and poked her in the shoulder. "Hush now. You mustn't complain. God doesn't like women who complain."
"Papa complains all the time and God likes him just fine," Brenna announced. "That's why Papa's so big.
Only God is bigger than he is."
"Where did you hear such nonsense?"
"Papa told me so. I want to go outside now. I won't run after the piglets again. I promise."
"You're staying right where I can keep my eye on you. You're going to behave yourself today. If you don't, you know what will happen to you, don't you?"
Brenna pointed to the ground. "I'll have to go down there." She dutifully repeated the threat she'd heard over and over again.
The little girl didn't have any idea what was'down there,' she only knew it was awful and she didn't want to go there. According to Elspeth, if Brenna didn't change her sorry ways, she was never going to get into heaven, and just about everyone, including her family, wanted to go there.
She knew exactly where heaven was, because her papa had given her exact directions. It was right on the other side of the sky.
She thought she might like it, but really didn't care. Only one thing was important to her now. She wasn't about to be left behind again. She still had nightmares at least once a week over what her mama referred to as "the unfortunate incidents," because the terrifying memories were still lurking in the back of her mind, where everyone knew all little girls tucked away their worries, just waiting for the right opportunity to jump out in the dark and scare her. Her screams would wake her sister, of course. While Elspeth was busy soothing baby Faith, Brenna would drag her blanket to her parents' chamber. When her papa was away from home doing important work the king could give only to someone as trustworthy and loyal as he was, she'd sneak into the big bed and cuddle up next to her mama, and when her papa was home, she'd sleep on the cold floor right next to Courage, his beautiful silver-handled sword, which Mama swore he loved almost as much as his children. She felt safest when her papa was there, because his loud snores always lulled her back to sleep. Demons didn't try to crawl in through the window, and nightmares about being left behind didn't visit her when she was with her parents. They wouldn't dare.
"Please tell Brenna to keep her mouth shut when company arrives, Mother." Matilda requested. "She shouts every word. She does it on purpose. When will she stop?"
"Soon, dear, soon," her mother replied almost absentmindedly.
Brenna moved away from her sister. Matilda was bossy by nature, but now that their brothers were away learning how to be as important as their papa for their king, her condition had worsened. She was becoming as bothersome as Elspeth.
Brenna's shoulders slumped. "Mama, I'm weary of everybody telling me what to do all the time. Doesn't anybody like me?"
Her mother wasn't in the mood to placate her daughter.
"Brenna, do not say another word until you are given permission to speak."
Elspeth moved forward to offer her opinion. " 'Tis my fear you'll never catch a husband for that one, milady."
Brenna put her hands over her ears and ran across the room. She hated it when the nursemaid referred to her as "that one." She wasn't one of the piglets, after all.
"I'll catch a husband by myself!" Brenna shouted.
Joan walked into the hall in time to hear her sister's boast.
"What have you done this time, Brenna?"
"Tell me what you've done. I promise I won't lecture you."
"I sassed Mama. Did Papa catch your husband for you, Joan?"
"Catch a husband?" she asked. She didn't laugh, because she knew she'd injure Brenna's tender feelings, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling.
"I suppose he did," Joan admitted.
"Did you help?
"No. I'll meet my husband on the day I marry him."
"Aren't you scared he's ugly?"
"What he looks like won't matter. Papa assures me it's a strong alliance."
"Is that good?"
"Oh, yes. Our King has given his approval."
"Rachel says you have to love your husband with your whole heart."
"That's only a foolish wish."
"Elspeth says Papa won't ever find anyone for me. She says Papa's too busy for the likes of me. I have to catch one by myself. Will you help me?"
Joan smiled. "I can see this is worrying you. I'll be happy to help."
"How do I get one?" Brenna whispered.
Joan pretended to consider the matter for a long minute before she answered.
"I imagine you select the man you want and then you ask him to marry you. If he lives far away, you must send a messenger to him. Yes, that would be how you would do it. Why are we whispering?"
"Mama told me not to talk."
Joan burst into laughter. The noise alerted Elspeth, who immediately rushed over.
"Please don't encourage her, Lady Joan. Brenna, you were told to keep quiet. Doesn't that mouth of yours ever rest?"
"I'm sorry, Elspeth."
The nursemaid snorted in disbelief. "No, you're not sorry." She moved closer, wagged her finger in front of Brenna's face, and said, "One of these days God's going to march in here and lecture you sound, young lady. Mark my words. You'll be sorry then. He doesn't like little girls who sass."
Elspeth finally left her alone. Brenna fell asleep waiting for company to arrive. Her sister Rachel shook her awake and pulled her along to stand with her older sisters.
Brenna hid behind Rachel until her name was called and she was dragged out for display. She was suddenly feeling too shy to look up at the company, and as soon as her papa finished bragging about her, she moved behind her sister again.
None of the strangers paid any attention to her, so she decided to sneak out of the hall while she could.
She turned around, took one step towards the entrance, and then came to a quick stop.
Three giants strode into the hall. She was too stunned to move and couldn't stop staring at them. The one in the middle was taller than the other two, and held her interest the longest. She watched him closely, and when her parents crossed the hall to greet the newcomers, she realized he was bigger even than her own papa.
She grabbed hold of Rachel's hand and started tugging. Her sister took a long time to look down.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"He isn't God, is he?" she asked, pointing to the dark-haired guest.
Rachel rolled her eyes heavenward. "No, he most certainly isn't God."
"Did Papa lie to me? He told me only God is bigger than he is, Rachel."
"No, Papa didn't lie. He was just teasing you That's all. You don't need to be afraid."
Brenna was thoroughly relieved. Papa hadn't deceived her after all, and God hadn't bothered to con down from heaven to lecture her. There was still time for her to change what Elspeth told her was her sinful life.
Her papa's shout of laughter drew her attention She smiled, because he was having such a fine time and then turned to look at the middle one again She'd been told time and again that it was rude stare, but she didn't obey her mother's rule now. The giant mesmerized her and she wanted to remember everything she could about him.
He must have felt her staring at him, though because he suddenly turned and looked directly her.
Brenna decided to make her papa proud of her and behave like a proper young lady. She grabbed a fistful of her skirt, hiked it up to her knees, and bent down to curtsy. She promptly lost her balance and almost hit her head against the floor, but she was quick enough to lean back so she could land on her bottom.
She stood back up, remembered to let go of her skirts, and peeked up at the stranger to see what he thought about her newly acquired skill.
The giant smiled at her.
As soon as he looked away, she squeezed herself up against Rachel's backside again.
"I'm going to marry him," she whispered.
Rachel smiled. "That's nice."
Brenna solemnly nodded. Yes, it was nice.
Now all she had to do was ask.
Papa let his daughters leave the hall a few minutes later. Brenna waited until everyone else had gone upstairs, then ran back outside. She was determined to catch one of the piglets today so she would finally have a pet of her very own. She would have preferred a pup, but papa had let her older brothers and sisters all have them, leaving none for her, and she meant to right his terrible wrong by taking one of the piglets.
Luck was on her side. The piglets' mama had once again left the pen and was now sleeping in a mud pool on the far side of the stables halfway down the hill. Brenna tried not to make any noise, but she slipped in the mud and made a loud splatter anyway. The babies must have worn their mama out. She didn't even lift her head or open her eyes. Brenna heard the loud squeak of the front doors being opened next.