Saving his Highland Soul (Preview)

Chapter One

“Mammy, Mammy, hold on,” Eithne muttered over again, trying frantically not to let her desperation show. All around her, the sounds of conquest raged, the smells of blood and fire and death filling the air. “Yer gonnae be just fine.”

Her mother, bleeding much like a butchered animal, coughed as she laughed. There was blood there, too, turning her lips a frightening ruby red. “Ye should take Neal and run lass,” muttered Lady Kinnear, wincing at the effort the words took. “Ye wouldnae be calling me ‘mammy’ if ye really thought I was gonnae make it. Go find yer sister.”

“right, Eithne. We need to go,” Neal urged. “Hurry.”

Eithne did not move, clutching her mother’s hand tighter. “Ye should go,” she told Neal. Her best friend was wounded, too, his arm hanging at an odd angle, but she was sure he could survive long enough to get out of here. “But I cannae. I’ll nae leave me mam to bleed out like a pig in the dirt.”

If she was honest, Eithne knew that the specter of the otherworld had already covered her mother. The once-lovely black hair that she’d shared with her son and oldest daughter was tangled and matted with dirt and blood, and who knew what else. It tangled behind Lady Kinnear’s head; its soft waves were gone. Her tawny eyes, very different from the blue that Eithne and Myrna had inherited from their father, were clouding over.

“Eithne,” Neal urged. “Please.”

Eithne looked up at him, her handsome best friend who had fought by her side. He’d been upset at her and at her mother for refusing to leave and flee to safety when the attack began. Her younger sister Myrna had escaped before Laird Kinnear had fallen, but Eithne and the Laird’s widow would not leave. They aided the men, even fought alongside them when their numbers dwindled, but it was all for naught.

They had lost. Kinnear was lost. And now Neal, with his soft brown hair and brown eyes and kind smile, was right. She needed to get out of here, and quickly, before the circle of enemy soldiers closed in on them. Neal, who’d been her constant companion since her birth one and twenty years ago. Neal, who had confessed his love for her just before this battle started.

I never even had time to respond. Perhaps if we escape now, I’ll be able to make up me mind.

But Eithne’s father was dead, and now her mother lay dying, and Eithne knew she couldn’t leave. She tried to make her legs move, but they felt like they were filled with lead. Her hand, the one soaked in her mother’s blood, refused to release Lady Kinnear and leave her to die alone and afraid.

“I’m going to yer daddy, pet,” Lady Kinnear whispered. “But ye dinnae have to come with me.”

“Hush now, Mammy,” Eithne said. She was not ashamed to have tears in her eyes. “I’ll stay until ye sleep.”

Neal moved closer, putting a hand on her shoulder, and Eithne was glad that he was no longer trying to convince her. Instead, he stood there, guarding her as best he could while she hummed the lullaby her mother had given her as a child. It sounded sharp and discordant against the cries and screams of defeat, but Lady Kinnear closed her eyes and leaned into Eithne’s caressing hand as she sang.

“An’ when ye sail away, nae matter how far, remember I’ll be here, I’ll be yer guidin’ star,” Eithne sang. Neal’s hand tightened around her shoulder, his fingers digging in almost painfully. “And dinnae let the fear, send yer heart astray, as long as we ken love, I will light yer way.”

Eithne felt it when her mother took that last, shuddering breath, and the tears poured as she leaned down to kiss her mother’s forehead for the last time.

“Sleep tight, Mammy,” she whispered. “I’ll see ye again. I promise.”

She heard Neal withdraw his sword next to her. They were closing in, then. This was it. This was how Eithne died. She looked up, her tears dry now as she stared at the circle of soldiers who were here to bring her death.

“There’s still time to run, Neal. Go,” she urged.

In response, Neal just stood in front of her with his sword, ready to protect her until her dying breath.

Like that, kneeling by her mother’s body behind her friend, Eithne watched as the circle broke. Through it walked a man she recognized. With his dark blond hair and freckled face, the young Laird of the MacDuff clan might have been handsome if it wasn’t for the cruel look in his eyes and the twist to his smile. At six and twenty, only five years older than Eithne herself, he had brought more death than he’d lived life.

“Greetings, Eithne,” he said casually, walking closer casually as if they’d met on the road instead of on the battlefield.

She hated how he said her name, leaning hard on the last sound like the Sassenachs did, En-YAH rather than EH-nyah like it was supposed to be. She’d told him that once when they were younger. Now he was taunting her.

She said nothing, and Rory smirked. His men closed in behind him, flanking him.

“Nae another step,” Neal warned, brandishing his sword.

Eithne gently laid her mother down and got to her feet. She put a gentle hand on Neal’s shoulder and walked past him, facing Laird MacDuff – no, Rory. She would not give him the honor of a title. “What do ye want?” she asked, though she knew.

Rory snorted. “Och, ye’re still being brave, are ye lass? Tell me, what’s the point?” He raised a hand, twirling a strand of her dark hair around his finger. Eithne heard Neal take an angry breath, but she tried not to flinch. “Ye’ve lost.”

“I’ll never lose to ye,” she told him.

This just made Rory laugh, long and loud. “Such a feisty wee thing ye are. And yet look around ye. Yer village is in tatters. Yer clan’s been overcome.” He leaned closer, his hot breath tickling her ear as she tried not to shudder. “I dealt with yer dear Faither meself, ye ken. I thrust me sword into his stomach over and over while he begged for his life like a coward.”

“He didnae!” Eithne snarled. “He would never beg to the likes of ye.”

“He did,” Rory told her. “But nae until after one of me men slit yer pathetic brother’s throat in front of him.”

Me brother. Killian. Him too. I cannae bear this.

“Ye’re lying,” she cried, though she knew he spoke only the cold, horrible truth.

“Believe what ye like,” Rory said, moving back from her a little. He glanced at the ground where Eithne’s mother lay and sighed. “What a waste. She neednae have died. Why did the two of ye nae run off like yer sister did? Was it because of ye, Eithne? Are ye the reason that yer mammy lies dead?”

“Dinnae ye ever mention her again,” Eithne snarled, her voice higher in pitch as the anger pulsed through her veins. “I dinnae care who ye think ye are. I—”

“Ye’re nothing, nae anymore,” Rory told her softly, his grin terrifyingly white against his dirt-streaked face. “Yer daddy’s dead. Yer mammy’s dead. Yer clan’s gone. Revenge is mine, and ye’ve got nae choice. Ye’ll be me bride.”

Eithne shuddered as his hands snaked around her waist, pulling her close to him. His lips hovered just above her own. “I will nae,” she said.

“Ye will,” he said, touching her cheek again. “Ye’ll bed me and wed me, and our bairns will rule together.”

“I’d rather have me womb ripped from me chest and me legs tied shut forever than allow ye to touch me,” she spat.

A flash of anger crossed Rory’s face, and she was rewarded for her words by the back of his hand across her face. She went sprawling, her cheek burning as she landed in the dirt next to the cooling body of her mother.

“Dinnae touch her!” Neal yelled and ran forward. Eithne wanted to yell for him to stop, but she was too dazed, too dizzy, and the events unfolded in slow motion.

Rory looked at Neal incredulously, almost with amusement, then sidestepped. Neal stumbled past him in the dodge, and suddenly two of Rory’s men were there, holding him in place.

“Nay,” Eithne gasped. “Nay, dinnae, please.”

The men brought Neal forward, standing him in front of Rory.

“Brave, are ye nae?” the Laird said. Around him, his circle of men laughed.

“Braver than ye,” Neal retorted, then reeled back in pain as Rory punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over, only still on his feet because the men were holding him up.

“Rory, leave him be. Leave him,” Eithne pleaded. She scrambled to her feet again.

“Stay back,” Neal commanded of her.

Rory glanced at her, then back to Neal, a slow smile unfolding on his face. “Ah, I see, I see. Ye love her, I think? Aye, that’s it. Ye want to be her husband. And she’s nae sure, but ye live in her heart as well. Aye, aye, I see it now.”

Eithne ran over to Rory, grabbing at his clothes. “Please. I’ll do anything ye want. I’ll wed ye; I’ll bed ye. I’ll have yer bairns. I’ll tell the other clans that ye’re our rightful ruler, just please, please dinnae hurt him.”

Rory put his fingers under her chin, forcing him to look up at her. “Ah, love,” he crooned. “It’s nice to see ye so passionate. Ye ken that I’ll do anything to make ye happy. All it’ll cost ye now is a kiss.”

“Eithne, dinnae—” Neal started but lost his breath as one of his captors punched him again.

“A thousand kisses if ye let him live,” Eithne said. She fought her instinct to recoil as Rory’s arm wrapped around her waist and drew her closer, and she wrapped her own arms around his neck. She didn’t want this, but if it were the only way Neal would live, she would do it.

Their lips met. It was her first kiss, and it was…wrong, all wrong. The way his mouth moved against hers made her want to scream, his demanding tongue like an infection her body wanted to drive out. But she held him, and she bore it because her only other choice was—

The sound that followed would haunt her dreams forever – the sound of steel tearing through flesh, the soft scream of a murdered man. Neal’s knees hitting the ground as he collapsed.

Eithne pulled back in horror to see Rory’s other hand extended, his sword through Neal’s sternum. Neal’s eyes were glassy as he looked up at her, tears and blood and agony drowning his face.

“Eithne,” he whispered, and then his eyes went blank. Rory withdrew his sword, and Neal’s body fell to the ground in its final farewell.

“Nay!” she screamed, half a word and half a wild wail that she could not control. She pounced at Rory, ready to kill him with her bare hands. But his strong grip restrained her, and then the men who had been holding Neal had her, and she was lost.

They pinned her to the ground as she sobbed and screamed and spat. Her face pressed into the cold dirt, and she turned to breathe and found herself staring directly into Neal’s dead eyes. Not far from him lay her mother, pale and cold.

Eithne’s energy went out of her, and her body went limp. She had lost. It was over.

“There. That wasnae so hard, was it? Take her to the keep, lads,” Rory said.

Dimly, Eithne was aware of being half-dragged, half-carried back to the castle that had once been her home. The men laughed and joked as they pulled her through the half-ruined building to the bedroom nearby where her older brother slept.

Where he used to sleep. He’s dead. He’s gone.

They tossed her inside, and she fell to the cold stone floor. She didn’t know how long she lay there, but eventually, she realized that she might get ill if she didn’t move. Life didn’t feel worth living, not anymore, but she would not give up and die for Rory MacDuff.

She crawled along the floor to the bed. It was still unmade and messy since they’d sent the servants away when the attack started. The sheets smelled like Killian. She laid her head on the pillow and pulled the blanket over her shoulders.

Killian. Faither. Mither. Neal. Oh, Neal…

Their names looping in her head, she eventually fell into a dreamless sleep, unsure if she would ever be able – or willing – to wake again.

Chapter Two

“Did ye hear about the terrible happenings at Clan Kinnear?” asked the young man half in his cups to anyone who would listen. He’d been chattering all night about this and that, and Ivor, who had little time for idle gossip, had paid him little attention. At the mention of Kinnear, however, he looked up. He couldn’t help it.

Killian Kinnear had been Ivor’s friend since childhood, unlikely though their bond might have been. Ivor, the half-Norse Highlander with no clan, who had made his living with his bow and his sword since he was a boy, would never have expected to befriend the son and heir of a Laird. And yet, when he’d met Killian, they’d bonded instantly.

Ivor had been stealing some fruit from the Laird’s gardens, aged just eleven, and Killian caught him. Rather than turning him in, the young heir disappeared into the keep and returned with a whole basket of food. Since then, whenever Ivor was nearby, the two of them were inseparable. Ivor had even loaned his mercenary services to the Laird during some battles as a favor to his friend.

It’s been some moons since I heard from Killian, though.

“What happened?” he asked abruptly.

It was the first time he’d spoken all night, and it sent a visible jolt of surprise through the other patrons of the tavern. Ivor snorted into his mead. This was one reason he spent so little of his time talking to other people – he forgot how intimidating they found him.

Realistically, Ivor couldn’t blame them. He was tall and bulky, his muscles straining at his shirt no matter what he tried to wear because they simply weren’t tailored in his size. His long, rough brown hair with its blond traces in the sun stood out here, as did his eyes.

His eyes were maybe his most distinguishing feature. Previous lovers had called them honey in color, no doubt as a compliment. Previous enemies had, as well, but they meant it like a trap – a sweetness that hid deadliness just beneath.

Ivor tried to relax his stance a little for their sake, but his every nerve was on edge. There was silence after he spoke for a long moment, and he could taste the fear in the room.

Eventually, the drunken young man hesitantly said, “They’re all dead, sir.”

“What?” Ivor demanded, slamming his tankard down on the table. “What are ye saying?”

“The Kinnear’s,” the lad explained. “The MacDuff’s attacked. I heard the younger lass got out, but the Laird and Lady are dead and the heir and the older sister and half the castle village. Rory MacDuff is claiming all the land for himself.”

That cannae be right—it cannae.

He thought of Killian – his dark hair, his tawny eyes, his easy smile – and found the idea of his death simply inconceivable. Killian was one of the most alive people that Ivor knew. The Laird and Lady were strong, and the people…well, when Ivor had fought alongside them, he’d felt in good hands.

So then, what had happened? He pushed the young man for more details, but he didn’t seem to have any.

Ivor considered. He had been on his way to meet a contact nearby to sell his skills, but he was less than a day out now from the castle town of Clan Kinnear. Surely the lad was talking nonsense, but if he wasn’t…well, this was something that he had to see for himself.


As he rode, Ivor’s doubt faded, and his heart began to ache. Every person he passed seemed to be discussing the Kinnear massacre. The Laird, Lady, and heir were all dead – that much was certain. Half the country knew this already, despite the deed only occurring a day before. All of the women and the children of the clan lay dead in the streets…and Killian was gone.

I never even got to say farewell. The last thing I said to him was some silly jape.

Many wild rumors were flying around the country about the events, and often they contradicted each other. The youngest daughter was dead, or maybe the younger daughter had escaped. The older daughter was bedding Rory MacDuff. The older daughter had turned on her family. The older daughter was alive and still in the castle.

Through all of these contradictory stories, Ivor drew two solid conclusions. The first was that both of Killian’s sisters still lived. Killian had spoken of them often; his friend and confidante Eithne, the older who looked exactly like him and his mother except for her ice-blue eyes, and the younger girl Myrna, who had been just a wee bairn when Ivor and Killian first met.

He’d never met the girls, but the stories that Killian had told him flooded his mind. The gentle smiles that the mercenary’s friend had worn when he talked about his sisters were tattooed onto Ivor’s heart. From the stories, it seemed like young Myrna had fled with some of the servants to her mother’s people, but not Eithne.

There was no basis for the rumors of Eithne’s betrayal. He’d never met her, but Ivor knew that much. Killian had trusted his sister with his life – and that meant Ivor did, too.

This led Ivor to the second conclusion and what was quickly becoming the only mission that held any interest for him.

Eithne is somewhere in Kinnear Castle, held captive. And I’m gonnae get her out and make her safe.


Eithne pulled her brother’s cloak tighter around her shoulders. She’d cried so much that her heart felt dry in her chest. The unsent letters in her hand were all written in Killian’s neat script and now stained with the saltwater from her eyes.

One was addressed to Eithne herself, teasing her over some bet the two of them had had. It was part of a long series of notes they’d passed back and forth across the castle over the years.

And the last letter he’ll ever write to me.

The pain threatened to cripple her as she folded the letter and tucked it in her shirt near her heart. She knew some of the people to whom the others were addressed, while there were others she had never heard about at all. One for Neal, one for Myrna; there were letters to the sons of other clans and girls he may have courted.

One name, Ivor, repeated over and over, but Eithne could not place it. It sounded vaguely familiar, but she had been locked in this room a day and a night without food or water, her wounds untreated, the agony of her family and friends’ deaths beating her every time she tried to rest.

Me mither’s blood on me hands. Neal’s eyes going blank…

She doubled over, trying to push the agony out of her stomach, pulling the cloak tighter around her. What had happened to Killian? Had Rory told the truth about how he’d died? Had they really made her poor father watch the death of his only son?

It was too much. Too much for anyone.

The door suddenly creaked open, and she looked up, bleary-eyed through her exhaustion and sorrow, to see the face she could happily have never seen again. “Rory,” she said quietly. “What do ye want?”

“Ye, me bonny. I’ve only ever wanted ye. Maybe if ye’d have said aye in the first place, we could have avoided all of this mess,” he told her. He leaned against the doorframe, smiling at her so pleasantly that she wanted to scream. “I’ve come to give ye yer new choices.”

I cannae listen. He wanted power. He would have attacked whether I’d agreed to wed him or not.

But despite knowing that, the guilt chewed at Eithne. What if he hadn’t? What if Neal, her parents, Killian, all of her people had died because of her choice?

He waited for his words to settle. “As ye can see, if ye try and get out of that window there, ye’ll break every bone in yer body or worse,” he told her cheerfully, pointing behind her. “Ye’re welcome to try. That’s option one.”

Eithne swallowed. She’d stared out of the window for hours, trying to work out a way to make it out without killing herself, but Rory was right. It was impossible. “And me other choices?”

Rory’s grin widened. “Me preferred choice, and yer second option is that ye wed me. I swear I willnae touch ye until our wedding night, even, for I ken the importance of a woman’s maidenhood.”

“I’d rather die,” Eithne snarled. She tried to picture herself in his nude embrace and shuddered, bile burning her throat.

“Well, that’s yer third option,” Rory said, shrugging as though he didn’t really care. “I’ll make an example of ye and parade yer body in the streets if I have to.”

She knew it wasn’t a bluff. He would kill her if she refused to marry him, and he would smile while he did it. He desired her, maybe even loved her in his own twisted way, but not as much as he loved his own ego.

The worst part was that death didn’t sound like a terrible option. It would be an escape from this endless pain, from the sorrow and the physical agony. And in the afterlife, her mother and father were waiting. Neal and Killian and all of her friends were waiting. There was nobody, nothing to keep her here, except—

“Promise me ye’ll come out of this alive, Ennie,” Myrna begged as Eithne helped her onto her horse. “Promise, or I willnae leave.”

“I promise,” Eithne replied, kissing her cheek swiftly. “I’ll get out. I’ll survive and come back to ye.”

She’d sworn to her younger sister that she’d return. No matter how vile the prospect of living felt right now, she couldn’t leave Myrna alone. She needed to somehow get to her mother’s people and find the girl and remind them both that some of their family still lived.

“Well?” Rory said, folding his arms. “What option do ye pick? I hope it’s two meself.” As she watched, he fingered the sheath at his side – not the one that held his sword, but the smaller belt where he kept his dagger. She knew it was clean, and yet it shone red with jewels that looked like they were already covered in Eithne’s blood.

My blood. The blood of me family.

Eyes filled with hate, Eithne looked up and met his gaze. She nodded just once.

He laughed triumphantly. “We wed on the morrow,” he told her, then walked out, slamming the door shut behind him.

Part of Eithne wanted to sink down into nothing again, but she couldn’t, not now. There was another way out if she could just find the key; the trapdoor that led to the passages through the walls. Each of the Kinnear children had one in their room, and they’d used them to sneak around after dark and play well into the night many times. Since they’d grown, Eithne and Killian had both kept theirs locked.

But the key must be somewhere. It has to be.

Her search lasted hours, and she must have torn apart every drawer, ripped every sheet, searched every nook and cranny, but the slim iron key was nowhere to be found. She uncovered the trapdoor, but it was locked tight. She tried to pick the lock with everything she could reach, but it was no use.

Eventually, exhausted, she collapsed on the floor. The cold stone froze her cheek, and she thought it might be nice just to give up, to let the coldness in. She glanced at the bed one more time, knowing she wouldn’t even have the energy to climb into it now.

That’s when she saw it – the little notch in the foot of the bed frame. She crawled over, pulling at the wood with her fingernails until she found her prize. It was dusty, bloody from her fingers, and ice cold to the touch – but she held the key in her hand and enjoyed the feeling more than the gentlest bath.

In her hand, she held her freedom.

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