Euphemia. He couldn't even say her name without wanting to draw his sword. She would never call herself a MacAlister again, never wear the plaid she had violated, and never come near them again.
Quinlan expected his laird to turn to the east, as they were now parallel to his fortress, and was therefore taken by surprise when he stopped instead.
"Connor?" he asked as he pulled up beside him. "You're going to have to shake off your anger until after you've seen your wife. I know you feel you've abandoned her, but she'll understand you didn't have any choice. She loves you," he added with a nod. "Quit staring at the ground and look at me."
"Look down," Connor snapped.
He humored his laird and did just that. Then he let out a low expletive. "There are fresh tracks."
"Four horses… no, five," Connor altered. "They're going slow, in a single line. Who…"
"How many did Aeden tell us came back with Raen?"
"Three," Connor answered. He jerked upright then. "The bastard's mother could be on her way home now. Pity, I would have liked to talk to her."
"You'd end up killing her," Quinlan said.
Connor shook his head. "No, death would be too kind. I want her to suffer for as many years as she has left."
"If it's Raen's burial party, why would they take the opposite path? They have to know they're going the wrong way."
"I don't know."
"The tracks are fresh enough for us to catch up with them in little time at all. We should know where they're headed, shouldn't we?"
Connor nodded. "We'll follow the tracks, but only for a few minutes. I need to get to Brenna."
"I know you do. I'd start practicing," he said as they once again goaded their mounts into a gallop.
"Practicing what?" Connor shouted.
"Telling her you love her."
Connor rode on ahead and cut through a section of the forest to shorten the distance to the rise above the slope ahead so that he could see how far away Euphemia was. When he broke through the trees, he dismounted and ran ahead to watch the procession below.
Quinlan caught up with him a minute later.
A long, narrow meadow stretched out below. It was the funeral party all right, and Raen was draped over the last horse in the line as they moved forward.
Connor's attention was drawn to the trees. Something had moved, he was sure of it. He waited, and a few minutes later, when the five reached the edge of the flat, a figure stepped out from his hiding place.
Both he and Quinlan recognized MacNare at once. Stunned and enraged, they watched Euphemia dismount and run forward to embrace her ally.
They knew who the traitor was.
He rode to the Kincaids' at a neckbreaking pace, and when he reached the courtyard, he swung down from his horse and went tearing inside.
He took the stairs two at a time to get to the balcony, frantic now to see for himself that she was going to be all right. Crispin was standing sentry outside her room. Connor raced past him, threw the door open, and charged inside.
He knew he was acting like a madman; he couldn't help it. He needed to tell her how sorry he was that he hadn't been there to protect her. If she didn't forgive him, he didn't know how he would be able to go on.
He reached the center of the room before he saw her standing by the window with Jamie. And then he came to a dead stop.
No one could have prepared him for this. His gentle little wife had been beaten so severely, he couldn't understand how she had survived. She looked as though she'd been cornered by a wild beast. Her face was blotched with purple bruises, one arm was bandaged from her shoulder to her fingers, and there were claw marks everywhere.
But she had survived. Connor repeated those words twice inside his mind in order to calm down enough to speak to her.
She wasn't dead. She wouldn't be standing if she were dead.
"No, I'm not dead," Brenna said, and only then did he realize he'd spoken his thought aloud.
On her way out, Jamie paused to whisper to Connor. "She won't stay awake long. I gave her something to make her sleep, but she's fighting it. She seems to think she has to apologize to you first. Try to get her into bed."
Connor walked closer to Brenna so he could catch her in time if she collapsed. He didn't want to frighten her. He knew he looked god-awful. There was war paint on his face and arms and a burning fury in his eyes he was helpless to conceal.
He wanted her to come to him, yet couldn't imagine why she would ever want to get near him again after what he had done to her. While he had been defending a useless piece of land, she had been left alone to defend herself against his predators.
"Do you want me to wash the war paint off? I know you don't like it," he said, his voice gruff with emotion.
"I don't mind."
"I have something to tell you, Connor."
"Get into bed first."
"Jamie put something in my drink to make me sleep. She told me I won't wake up until tomorrow."
"I know," he answered.
"If I get into bed…"
She didn't move. "Raen fell out the window."
"I know he did, love."
"I didn't push him. I didn't mean to stab him either. He fell back on his blade, and if he hadn't been holding my wrist down to the floor, it wouldn't have happened. I was trying to cut his hand so he would move it away from my mouth and I could scream for help. Please believe me. I didn't mean for him to die. I just wanted him to get off me."
"I'm sorry I wasn't there to protect you."
"What would you have done?"
"Thrown him out the window for you."
Confused by what he'd just told her, she shook her head. The movement made her dizzy. "I have more to tell you before I sleep. I tried to honor and respect your mother, but I can't any longer. It's wrong for me to come between you and your family. She's part of your past, and I know how important she is to you.
She'll never come back to see you again as long as I'm there. She's going to hate me, Connor, when she finds out her son is dead. Crispin was going to hide him for me. Your mother told me to do whatever Raen wanted me to do. I wouldn't, though, and I'm not sorry. It was wrong of her to think I would ever submit to him."
"Yes, it was wrong. Let me carry you to bed."
She acted as though she hadn't heard him. "She's never going to forgive me. I don't want her to anyway. I don't like her. You have to decide which of us is more important to you. I know it's wrong of me to make such a demand, but I…"
"No, I have to explain," she cried out. "I can see how angry you are, and I…"
She was struggling to stay awake, as the potion Jamie had given her was making her sway even now, and she could barely concentrate on what she was telling him.
The second her head fell forward, he gently lifted her into his arms and held her close. She had fallen asleep. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. He didn't move for over an hour, content to feel her warmth against him.
Jamie returned to the room to sit with Brenna. The torment she saw in Connor's face made her want to weep for him. "She needs her rest, Connor. Put her in bed now."
He wouldn't move. It took her a long while to convince him that his wife was going to be fine.
Yet still he hesitated to leave her side. "I don't want her to be alone again."
"She won't be alone," Jamie promised. "We just received word from your holding that Father Sinclair is on his way. Oh, Connor, he isn't coming to administer the last rites. Brenna isn't dying. He's her friend.
He'll sit with her too."
"You'll get word to me if she needs me or if her condition changes."
"Yes, of course I will."
The fire burning inside him was raging now, and he knew that if he didn't leave the chamber quickly, he would completely lose his control.
Jamie followed him to the door. "Where are you going?"
"To finish it."
"What do I tell Brenna?"
He shook his head. He didn't want to worry his wife, and he knew if she was told he was going to MacNare, she would become afraid for his safety; yet he didn't want to lie either.
And so he simply told the truth. "I'm going to my stepmother."
His mask of composure vanished the second he stepped into the hall. Gone was the loving husband, and in its stead the savage warrior was revealed. He removed his sword from his sheath, handed it to Crispin, and went downstairs. His stride was long, purposeful; his expression cold, deadly now with his intent.
Alec watched his brother from across the hall and tensed in anticipation.
Connor didn't say a word. Rigid with fury, he stormed into the hall, reached up, and ripped his father's sword off the wall.
No command was needed. Quinlan and Crispin stepped forward and matched their laird's stride.
Alec didn't hesitate. He took up his own sword, his expression murderous, and followed his brother.
At long last, Donald MacAlister was going to gain justice.
They showed no mercy. The battle to surround MacNare's keep was hard fought, hour upon hour, their swords slicing through the air again and again as they methodically cut through the enemy's defenses from all sides. Alec's forces swarmed up from the south in a wide half-circle, while Connor and his allies swept down from the north in an inpenetrable arc that joined with Alec's soldiers to make the circle complete.
It was impossible for the enemy to escape their line or their vengeance. The element of surprise was on their side.
Until the moment they attacked, MacNare was unaware his treacherous plans had been discovered. The northern clans had been told to attack Connor's fortress in two days' time, at dawn, but because of the old woman's stupidity in coming to MacNare for sanctuary earlier than planned, their timing was destroyed.
MacNare didn't engage in the fight, but hid behind closed doors inside his keep. Surrounded now on all sides in a fiery tomb, the coward frantically hurried about to gather his gold to take with him through the secret passages. Like a rat, with his razor-sharp protruding front teeth, his narrow eyes darting back and forth, he scurried about the hall to get another pouch he could fill with his treasure, while Euphemia raged against him.
"Take up the fight," she urged. "All you need do is kill Connor and Alec, and their followers will scatter."
"Silence, old woman," he screamed. "Or I'll put my sword through your belly. It was your son's lust that brought Connor here."
"He doesn't know I brought my son's body here. He thinks I've gone up north."
"Then why did he attack?"
"Your raids against Hugh's borders must have provoked him," she cried out. "Stay and fight."
"Why do you care what happens? Your precious son is dead," he scoffed. "And a dead man cannot become laird over the MacAlisters. You've already lost everything."
The outer doors were being rammed open now. The pounding noise reverberating through the hall was as terrifying to MacNare as the encroaching fire. Murky gray smoke, slithering in from under the door, was already coiling up about his feet.
"Help me fill these bags," he shouted. "Hurry, they'll be inside soon."
A resounding crash told him the barricade had been breached. They were coming for him now. He heard the pounding of their booted feet against the stone floor outside his door, getting closer and closer and closer…
His hands shook so, he dropped the last bag, whimpered with regret over the spilled gold he didn't have time to collect, snatched up his sword, and ran to his escape route.
Euphemia threw herself in front of the passage. "Don't be a fool," she screamed. "Neither Alec nor Connor know the Buchanans have joined with my clan. In two days, they'll come down through the mountain passage, and attack the MacAlister fortress. You can still have your share if you stay and fight.
Kill Connor for me now, or I swear I'll lead him to you."
Four warriors stood outside the entrance, listening to Euphemia's desperate pleas, and it wasn't until Alec had heard their plan that he knew the man he had called ally, the bastard Buchanan, was in league against him.
Connor reached for the door. Alec shoved him aside and thrust his shoulder against the obstacle. The bolt weakened with the first push, broke in half with the second.
He stepped back, waited until Connor had drawn his father's bloody sword from his scabbard, and then put his hand on his shoulder. "Show him as much compassion as he and the others showed your father."
Quinlan and Crispin, their weapons ready, would guard their laird when he entered the hall. Alec would protect their backs, while his army protected him.
"Get out of my way," MacNare screeched at Euphemia from within.
She refused to move. MacNare still thought he had time to make his escape. He stepped back, lifted his sword, and shoved it into her middle just as Connor walked into the chamber.
He showed no reaction to his stepmother's bloodcurdling scream and watched without emotion as MacNare ripped the sword out of her and shoved her aside. Euphemia doubled over before collapsing to the floor.
MacNare didn't realize Connor was in the hall with him. He kicked Euphemia out of his way while he frantically searched for the panel that concealed his exit.
"Going somewhere?" Connor asked.
MacNare whirled around. "You had no right to attack me, MacAlister. No right at all. Kincaid will hear of this."
"I'm part of this, you fool," Alec bellowed in rage.
MacNare's face turned white. He looked as though he were seeing Death himself walking toward him.
"I wasn't there. I had no part in your father's death, MacAlister. I was just a boy, like you were. Yes, just a boy."
"You were over twenty years old," Alec shouted back. "You were there, all right, wearing the Kaerns'
plaid, you bastard. Donald MacAlister was my friend."
He nudged Connor in his back. "The sight of such refuse is foul to me. End it."
"I'll kill you first," MacNare boasted. He leapt forward, crouched down, and hurled his sword at Connor.
He would have made his mark if Connor hadn't deflected the weapon with his father's sword.
"Help me, Connor," Euphemia cried out, writhing about in agony.