Poor Gilly. Her faithful mare had never done anyone any harm. The docile, obedient pet had brought Brenna such joy over the years, and should have been retired to a field of clover to die when her time came. To think that she had been mutilated and then dragged halfway up a mountain was nearly too horrible to accept.
She prayed the gentle pet had died quickly before the sadistic killers had used their knives and hatchets on her. Who would do such a vile, contemptible thing? What kind of monster would destroy one of God's gentle creatures with such malicious intent?
MacNare. He must be behind the deed. He must have been in a rage all the while he'd chased after Connor and her, and when he happened upon Gilly, he turned his wrath against her. Until today, Brenna hadn't known men were capable of such horrendous cruelty. When her father had decreed she would marry
MacNare, she remembered she'd been angry and worried. But she hadn't been truly afraid of the laird.
She was terrified of him now. If this is what he would do to an animal, what would he do to a man? The thought led to another more terrifying one. If Connor hadn't come for her when he did, she would be married to the demon now. The realization made her start gagging again.
She didn't know how long she sat on the bed thinking about what had happened, but the room was dark by the time Connor came inside. She neither looked at him nor spoke to him and was thankful for his silence, because she knew she wouldn't be able to talk about Gilly just yet.
After giving her a quick glance to make certain she was all right, he bolted the door behind him, then crossed to the hearth to start a fire blazing. He kept expecting her to shout at him, and when she remained silent, he grew even more worried. He knew she must be angry with him because he had insisted on leaving Gilly behind. He didn't want Brenna to keep her anger inside. The sooner she got it out in the open, the sooner she could sleep again.
Women, his brother had told him, had the unique ability to rid themselves of their anger simply by acknowledging it. Men weren't able to do such a thing. Anger would often fester inside the hearts of warriors for years and years, until they found a way to right the wrong done to them. Connor wouldn't have had it any other way.
"You're shivering. Come and stand by the fire."
She surprised him by obeying. As soon as she crossed the chamber, he pulled her into his arms, told her to look up at him, and then gave her permission to shout at him.
"I don't want to shout at you," she said, puzzled.
"I know you're angry with me. You'll tell me about it now and get rid of it."
"I'm not angry with you."
"I made the decision to leave your horse behind."
"Yes, but it was necessary."
She turned away from him and stared into the flames. "MacNare's responsible."
"He took pleasure in what he did to Gilly. Didn't he?"
"Don't think about it."
"Answer me." Her voice was sharper than she intended, but Connor didn't seem to be at all bothered by it. His response was quite mild when he agreed with her.
"Yes, I'm sure he took pleasure in mutilating the horse."
"I hope Gilly died quickly before… Did she?"
He looked her right in the eye while he lied to her. "Yes."
"How can you know for certain?"
"I know." He was emphatic enough for her to think he was telling her the truth.
"I shouldn't have left the braided ribbons dressing her mane. That's how he knew she belonged to a woman, isn't it?"
"They would have known anyway. She was smaller than any of ours."
Connor was taking it all in stride. She pulled out of his arms and looked up at his face again but couldn't see any anger there at all.
"You're very calm about it all, aren't you? Don't you want to shout?" she asked.
"Would such a reaction change what happened?"
She shook her head. She knew he was right. Ranting and raving wouldn't bring Gilly back to her. Still, the lack of emotion Connor was showing made her feel all the more alone with her anger and her terror.
"Why did MacNare go to such trouble to send what was left of Gilly to us?"
"He wanted me to see what he'd done. Go to bed now. You need your rest."
"Was it a message for you or for me?"
"Gilly belonged to me."
"But you belong to me," he reasoned.
"Was it a message of what's to come?"
"Hugh's soldiers said MacNare called it a gift," he told her. He forced her closer to him again and began to remove her clothes.
She didn't resist until he tried to take her chemise off her. "I'll be cold."
He wouldn't be deterred. "I'll keep you warm tonight. I notice you're still wearing the medallion your father gave you. I told you to throw it away," he reminded her. He really didn't care what she did with the wooden disk, now that he understood her better and knew she wasn't wearing it to insult him. It seemed harmless enough.
"I didn't do it."
"Throw it away."
"I can see you didn't," he said, amused. "You're really exhausted tonight, aren't you?"
"Yes. I don't think I'll be able to sleep though. I'm too angry and…"
She shook her head. She wasn't ready to admit to him how frightened she was. "Will you come to bed with me?"
"Not yet. I have one more duty to complete."
"Is it important?"
"Could you rest beside me for just a few minutes, please?"
She wouldn't get into bed until he agreed, so he removed his boots, stretched out on his back, and stacked his hands behind his head. He stared up at the ceiling. She stared at him.
He gave the appearance of a contented man who didn't have a worry in the world, and had she not seen him standing across from her in the courtyard, she would have thought he hadn't seen or heard about Gilly yet. His reaction didn't comfort her.
She would have preferred sleeping on the side closer to the door, but he made her take the side by the window instead. She didn't want to stare out at the ruins, but she didn't want to look at Connor either, because his cold attitude was nearly as unsettling as the view in the moonlight, and so she ended up flat on her back staring up at the ceiling, too.
She couldn't understand her husband's indifference. When he was looking down at Gilly, he'd appeared completely unconcerned, but she thought he'd been pretending so the messengers wouldn't have anything worthwhile to report. Now she wasn't so certain. Perhaps Connor hadn't been pretending at all. Could he really be so unfeeling?
The horse was her pet, yes, and though she had raised her and loved her dearly, she was still just an animal. But would Connor have behaved differently if the remains of one of his soldiers had been dragged home to him?
She found herself fervently hoping so.
Several minutes passed in silence while she thought about her husband's behavior. She thought of another question to ask him then and glanced over to make certain he was still awake first.
"Who did you say the soldiers came from?"
"Is he an ally of MacNare's?"
"His soldiers would have been killed a long time ago if their laird was an ally of MacNare's."
"Is he your ally then?"
"When it's convenient for him to be," he answered. "Hugh's land borders ours to the south. I let him live in peace as long as he stays out of my way."
"I wouldn't trust him."
Connor watched her struggle to stay awake. She could barely keep her eyes open and was yawning every other minute now, but she was still determined to talk about what had happened instead of giving in to the inevitable. He decided to help her lose her battle. He pulled her into his arms, held her close, and began to stroke her back. The heat radiating from his body warmed her and made her drowsy in no time at all.
"MacNare's a demon, and demons don't fear anyone," Brenna said. "That makes them all the more dangerous and terrifying to others."
He closed his eyes and waited for her to tell him she was afraid of the bastard.
She took a roundabout way of admitting it. "Women, especially, would be frightened."
"But not you," he said. "You know I won't let anything happen to you, don't you, Brenna?"
"Yes," she whispered. "And you know I won't let anything happen to you, don't you, Connor?"
He was smiling when he leaned down and kissed her forehead. "MacNare isn't immortal. He has fears like everyone else. He fears one man in particular."
"You're certain of this?"
"Should women also fear this man?"
"Who is he?" she asked. She fell asleep waiting for her husband to give her the name of the man this demon feared.
She slept soundly for over an hour, until she was jarred awake by the clanking sound of the drawbridge being lowered.
Connor wasn't in bed with her. She knew, before her feet touched the floor, that he was leaving the safety of the fortress. She grabbed her plaid and wrapped it around her on her way to the window.
The sight was ominous. A procession of soldiers on horseback, each carrying a fiery torch in one hand and holding a rope in the other, slowly crossed the bridge, dragging a bony carcass behind them. The clipping sound the horses made didn't cover the brittle echoes of the remains banging against the wooden planks.
Connor led the way to the ruins. When the procession reached its destination, everyone dismounted.
They formed an arc, and in the center, four of the men began the digging. Their muscular silhouettes glistened in the flickering light as they lifted mounds of dirt and flung them to the side.
The hole was deep. Another soldier stepped forward, reached down, and lifted each man up. The beacons were thrust into the ground then, and the soldiers moved in unison to pull on the ropes. The carcass was slowly dragged forward. It teetered on the edge of the black hole for several seconds, then plunged down. The ropes, like snakes, slithered down into the cavity as soon as the soldiers released them.
After they filled the hole with dirt, a single torch was left burning bright on top of the mound, and the other beacons moved toward the horses.
Minutes later, the procession came thundering back across the drawbridge. A single light remained behind to keep vigil over the ruins. It burned bright for several more minutes, flickered twice, and then was gone.
Brenna kept watch at the window for her husband.
When Quinlan and Crispin returned to the keep ten minutes later, she stepped back into the shadows so they wouldn't see her. The soldiers had been to the lake to wash, and she assumed her husband had gone with them.
Almost a full hour passed before he appeared on the path. The breath caught in the back of her throat at first sight of him. The fire from his torch blazed around him, and in the glow of the light, his magnificent body seemed covered with gold. She didn't sense the danger in him until he grew closer, and then she noticed the change. He was moving like a predator now. His stride was long, determined, the muscles in his shoulders and arms rolling with fluid grace under sleek skin, his gaze, watchful.
He was ready to strike. The power he radiated made her heartbeat quicken. Her hands trembled as she pulled the plaid tight around her shoulders to ward off a sudden chill. She knew she was being fanciful.
He was her husband, not a stranger. Yet her instincts continued to warn her. She understood why as soon as he reached the courtyard.
She felt his rage before she saw it. His head down, he deliberately followed the grooves in the ground over which Gilly had been dragged, and when he reached the spot where the animal had lain, he stopped.
He shuddered once, then drew himself up, threw his head back, and looked up at the sky. In the harsh light from the torch, the lines in his face were gray, stark, edged with fury. The vein in his clenched jaw throbbed, and his shoulders and neck became rigid.
He was consumed with anger. She stared into the cold, deadly eyes of a savage, for the rage controlled him now. He hurled the torch into the air, lifted his sword high above his head, and with both hands, plunged it deep into the bloody ground.
He was a terrifying sight. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't cry out to him.
She looked beyond to the ruins and suddenly she understood Connor's rage. He had told her his father had died there, but she hadn't questioned him to find out who had been responsible. She wouldn't ask him now, for in her heart, she already had her answer.
She drew a long breath and turned her gaze back to her husband. He was looking directly at her. Their gazes held for a full minute before he turned away. He ripped the sword out of the ground and started back to the path.
She shouted his name. His expression was still murderous when he looked up at her again. She should have been afraid; she wasn't. She put her hand out to him and ordered him to come home to her.
She waited in the center of the room. The sound of footsteps grew closer and closer. She kept her gaze on the door, her heart pounding with anticipation. She would take him into her arms and soothe the rage in him with gentle whispers and soft caresses.
She had witnessed the transformation from laird to savage and knew without a doubt that Connor was the one man MacNare feared.
She couldn't feel sorry for the pig.
Connor was having difficulty concentrating on his duties. Thoughts of his wife and what he'd done to her the night before kept intruding.
He'd behaved like an animal. He should have stayed at the lake until he'd gotten his anger under control, or spent the entire night there, but when she'd called out to him and beckoned him to come to her, he'd been powerless to resist her lure.
She shouldn't have touched him. If only she'd stayed on the other side of the bedroom, he might have been able to ignore her. Connor acknowledged this to be a lie as soon as he thought it. He'd had every intention of taking her from the moment he started up the steps, but he hadn't meant to take her like a savage. Had he hurt her? God help him, he didn't know. She didn't resist him, though, or ask him to stop.
He would have listened to her and obeyed her wishes, of that he was certain. He remembered how she'd run to him and put her arms around him and wouldn't let go. She hadn't known what he was going to do to her then, of course. Hell, she probably would have thrown herself out the window if she'd been able to guess his thoughts.