About the book
He was the most dangerous man, but she always felt safe with him…
Hilda Boatwrighte’s life is full, but lonely. A healer with no other family, she needs to be smart to survive. So, when a group of men starts chasing her, she asks for help from the most dangerous looking-man she finds: Scotland’s most notorious Laird.
Laird Dorian Bradforde’s reputation precedes him. Known for killing his father, everyone fears him. He cares for no one, except for his sister, whose life is slipping away. But Fate smiles down on him when she drops the solution right into his lap: the only healer who can help him.
Their love burns stronger than the fires of war around them. Hilda becomes Dorian’s reason to live again; but she is also his weakness. If anything happens to her, he would rather lay his life down. Which is a very real possibility, when he is forced to choose between her, and his sister…
The Market and The Laird
It was just beginning to turn dusk when she decided to pack up and go home. The selling day at the market had been a good one, and the light breeze congratulated Hilda on a job well done. She was fortunate to live in Dedham village, as it was one of the busiest in this part of the Highlands.
She walked down the street, which had a few mingling people about. There usually was little company in the street at this time, but the celebration of Saint Peter’s Feast had led people from all over the Highlands to come to Dedham. Whether to visit or to trade, they were strangers to Hilda, nonetheless. Wearily, she kept walking. She knew the route home like the back of her hand, and she knew how to be quick.
Up ahead of her were four men, dressed in clan colors she didn’t recognize. Scared, but trying not to show it, Hilda kept her pace. As she got closer, a fifth man appeared. He was taller than her by a foot and a half, his broad muscles showing under his ghillie shirt. His rakish blonde hair and blue eyes added to his fearsome appearance. They made a wall of muscle combined, and Hilda was going to have to speak to them if she wanted to pass.
“Aye, ye are the bonniest lass I have ever seen,” the fifth man complimented.
“I thank ye,” Hilda replied. “But I really must be gettin’ back.”
She made a move to step around, but the man mirrored her step. Hilda shot him a look, trying not to seem indignant or ungrateful for the compliment, but this man had her blood running cold. His eyes were as blue as ice, freezing her in her spot. She tried not to show fear on her face, but there was not much to be done in such a scenario.
“I’m afraid I cannae let ye by,” he continued with a little smirk on his lips. “A lass like yerself shouldnae be walkin’ alone. Let me take ye in for a drink.”
“Ye are very kind, but I am needin’ home,” she continued. “I have a wee—”
“I wasnae askin’ ye lass,” the man said, and his blue eyes turned dark. His big hand wrapped around her small arm. It became very apparent the man was not going to hear her dismissal, and he’d take what he could, if even by force. “Lasses like ye walkin’ alone are askin’ to be bedded.”
Clenching her free hand into a fist, Hilda took a deep breath. She wasn’t one to condone violence, but she wasn’t going to stand here like a flippant dobber and let this man take her. With as much force as her small frame could muster, she swung her fist. Hilda knocked the man across the jawline, her hand pulsing in pain. But he released his grip, and she didn’t want to stand around and look a gift horse in the mouth. Bolting the opposite direction, Hilda made her escape.
“Well, after her!” the man bellowed.
His voice was deep and menacing, and it rattled Hilda to the bone. The pounding footsteps behind her were an indication that the order was being followed. Hilda snuck a glance back to see the four men hot on her heels. She skirted around a corner, hoping to make it to a more public area. Maybe someone would see her predicament and intervene.
Her dress caught under her frantic feet, and she tumbled to the ground. Her palms scraped against the rough walk and dirt. Quickly, she got to her feet and bunched her skirt in her hands. The fall had caused her pursuers to gain on her quickly. Whatever lead she managed had disappeared. Not wasting anymore time, she continued running.
Hilda wove between houses and little cottage stores, hoping to lose her rather persistent chasers in the frenzy. Her lungs burned with the exertion, and she looked around. She had become quickly lost in her panic to get away. Dedham was a large community, and a woman like herself didn’t venture far and wide through the village. She stuck to the routes she knew by heart: the path to the market and back home again.
She turned again to see the men getting closer to her. In her momentary distraction, Hilda collided with a solid mass. Stunned, she looked up to see it was not a wall, but a man. A tall man with corded muscles, bigger than the one on the street before. His hands were firm as they caught her around the waist, his dark hair tucked neatly behind his ears.
“Oi, lass, watch where ye be runnin’,” he said with a deep, yet soft, voice.
“My apologies,” she replied. “These brutes are chargin’ behind me.”
“Did ye disobey?” he teased, and her eyes went wide in horror.
“Nay,” she shook her head. This man may be her only hope for help, and he seemed not to want to harm her. His hands, while large, were not tight in their grip on her waist. “I was goin’ about my walk home from the market. And some bampot made some rather un-gentlemanly comments about beddin’ me.”
At the admission to her plight, the man’s eyes went dark. But not in lust or desire. In fury—this man did not care for the advancements on women, and he made that very apparent. The men from before turned the corner and set their eyes on her, and he quickly and deftly moved Hilda behind him. His arm was still on the small of her back, comforting. Protecting, Hilda thought. Whoever this man was had no intent to harm her.
From behind the large man, she saw the four brutes’ jaws go slack. They looked at her, then back to him, and to each other. And without another word exchanged, they ran back the direction they came. How strange, Hilda noted, and her heart beat faster. Whoever this man is, they are scared of him. And if men twice her size are scared, she should be doubly so. But she felt nothing but gratitude for the man.
“I thank ye,” she said quietly from behind him.
He didn’t respond. Taking his time, the man didn’t move from his spot. Hilda scanned over his large body, noticing the scars on the lower part of his arms and the back of his hands. She wondered how many more scars were hidden under his shirt, as she saw two distinct lines at his neck. His dark hair was tied back into a tail by a string, covering most of his neck. But still, the puckered skin was evidence enough.
Reason kicked into overdrive in her mind, and Hilda took a step back. She could make a run for it now, as he stood still as a sentry. Another step back, and she turned to bolt. Swiftly as a fox, the man turned and caught her hand. He swung her around, and she looked into his deep brown eyes. They were soft but commanding, much like his voice.
“Lass, ye cannae be runnin’,” he smirked. “What’s yer name?”
“Hilda,” she replied meekly. “Hilda Boatwrighte, of the Hambleden Clan. I live here in Dedham, and I really must be goin’.”
The man made no move to let her go, but his grip was not tight. She thought she may have to punch him as well, but something told her that he was looking out for her protection. If he wanted his way with her, he’d had ample time. And yet, he made no move toward Hilda that would suggest such a vile action. But he looked entirely more menacing and dangerous than the others.
“What are ye doin’ out by yerself so late?” he asked.
“I was at the market all day,” she answered. “Sellin’ herbs and remedies. I’m a healer.”
At that, his eyes lit up. Something mischievous, no doubt. Hilda panicked for a brief moment, thinking he might drag her back to town and call for a witching trial. But again, he made no move. His face was all hard angles, but there was a delicacy to the features. He looked…handsome, if perhaps they were under different circumstances.
“I reckon ye owe me a favor, lass,” he said at last. “Ye will be followin’ me.”
Digging her heels into the ground, Hilda tried to stop him from dragging her along. She felt as if she had been thrown from one boiling kettle and into another. The man’s grip tightened, but still not as bruising as the one before. His eyes were patient. He had nothing but time, and eventually Hilda would have to comply.
“I will nae be followin’ ye,” she said defiantly, braving to look the man in the eyes. “I have a home in need of tendin’ and animals that need my care. I thank ye for yer help in scarin’ away those men, but I will not be a rat walkin’ into a trap.”
“A trap?” he mused, his lips pulling into a humorous smirk. “Lass, I daenae intend to trap ye. If it makes ye feel better, I plan on returnin’ ye back here.”
“I daenae ken how wallow ye think I am,” she bit back, “but I told ye already, I willnae be followin’ ye anywhere.”
He sighed and just shrugged, as if Hilda had forced his hand in some manner. As if she weighed nothing, he picked her up and carried her away. Panicked, she beat against his chest and kicked out with her feet. Anything to get him to let her go, but her attempts proved futile.
“Aye, yer like a floppin’ fish, lass,” he grunted. “Stop it, will ye?”
“Put me down!” she demanded, increasing her flailing. She wasn’t going to be taken without a fight, she swore. “Ye cannae rescue me and then immediately turn around and take me away.”
“Have ye read any fairytales?” he chuckled. “That’s exactly what the lads do with their lasses.”
“I am nae yer lass,” she shot back.
He didn’t respond, and they were soon at his horse. It was a large stallion, black as night. The horse had muscles like its rider—a powerful steed that if she jumped, it could crush Hilda under its mighty hooves. He placed her down on the front of the saddle, before moving to the saddle bags. He produced a rope and, after a bit of a struggle and Hilda slapping him across the face once, managed to catch both of her hands and tie them together and to the pommel of the saddle.
Satisfied that she was not going anywhere, he checked the tack of his horse. Hilda didn’t miss his gentle caresses he paid the horse, petting its mane and mumbling soft words. Despite his demeanor and his scars, he was gentle with animals. And with her, she thought. The rope around her wrists was tight enough she couldn’t get loose, but not too tight to make her skin rub raw.
Her heart was well on its way to beating fast, and her predicament only increased her panic. She struggled against the ropes, but there was no use. The knot the Highlander had tied was strong and secure. She was scared, terrified even, but she resolved not to show it. Cowardly women didn’t last long in the hands of men like the one who tied her to his horse. But she didn’t think, either, that he meant her any harm.
“Ye mind tellin’ me who ye think ye are, kidnappin’ women that come to ye for help?” Hilda asked with a tinge of terror in her voice.
He stopped his inspection of his horse abruptly. Even on the horse, Hilda was only a head taller than him. His brown eyes turned hard, his mouth set into a firm line. He exuded power and authority, and her attitude—not to mention slapping him—was not what he was used to from a woman. He expected her to obey. But Hilda was not one for following rules.
“I will have ye ken that I am nae a man that will be takin’ orders from a lass,” he growled fiercely. “And it is nae kidnappin’. Like I said before. I plan on returnin’ ye to yer home so ye can get back to yer pets.”
And without another word, he continued to check his horse. He reached for her small coin purse, which held the monies she earned at the market today. Her tiny hand gripped it with such force that her knuckles were white and her hand stiff. There was enough money to see to her living for the next two months, not to mention put some away for emergencies.
“I am nae robbin’ ye lass,” he sighed exasperatedly. “It is safer in the bag. Unless ye want highway men to rob us, I suggest ye give it to me. And trust me, those lads don’t bring a lass back when they take her.”
His logic was sound. Wherever he was taking Hilda, it was going to be a journey. Whoever he was, he knew the dangers of the Highlands. His kilt was familiar, but there was no identifying sash or clasp to help Hilda place the clan. Not to mention, he didn’t seem like the kind of man that would stop to pick up her earnings if she accidentally dropped her purse. So she handed it over, keeping a watchful eye as he kept true to his word.
With grace and fluidity, he swung onto the saddle behind her. She straightened her back and leaned forward, taking care not to lean against him. She would not be feeding his arrogance any further by physically being supported by him. He reached around her, grabbing the reins of his horse. With a flick, they set off on an easy trot out of Dedham.
“To answer ye question,” his voice was soft and low behind her, and Hilda tried not to lean back to hear more. “My name is Dorian Bradforde, Laird of Arundel.”
She stiffened, no longer keen on leaning back and into his melodic voice. She heard a low chuckle of amusement behind her. No wonder those men scurried off fast like the devil was chasing them. For all intents and purposes, he was. Hilda was on high alert now, and she highly doubted he would return her as he said.
After all, she was tied to the horse of the most dangerous man in the Highlands.
The Road to Arundel Castle
Hilda tried to take deep, calming breaths throughout the ride, but to no avail. Her heart hadn’t calmed down, and her whole body was tense from the fear. There was no worse a situation than the one she was in right now—except maybe being assaulted by the man from earlier. But nevertheless, she was mixed in with the wrong group of Scotsmen.
I’m a captive of the Laird of Arundel, she thought to herself. Tell my pets I’ll be sending my regards.
The sun set entirely, leaving them in darkness. Hilda didn’t know the way to Arundel Castle, nor really any part outside of Dedham. She kept to herself, and had much preferred such a life. That was proving to be a disadvantage at this point, but of all the things Hilda could have predicted her life would turn to, this wasn’t one of them.
The night was chilly as the breeze swept through her hair. Hilda couldn’t help but shiver. A little while later, Dorian pulled up to a tree, giving his horse a break. And while he didn’t offer to untie her, he went to his saddle bag—not the one with her coin purse, she noted. Moments later, he appeared with a tartan tonnag, the colors matching his kilt. It was a deep forest green, with hints of gold and brown woven in, and the primary color of a midnight blue. The Arundel Clan colors.
“Put this on,” he commanded. “I daenae want ye catchin’ a cold.”
“I’m perfectly fine, thank ye,” she said as best she could muster without her teeth chattering.
They were higher up in the mountains and crags, the air was colder. And she held firm in sitting upright, which didn’t allow for her to share the body heat that was rolling off of Dorian Bradforde. But she wouldn’t be indebted to his kindness any more than she already was.
Dorian produced an apple from his kilt, giving it to the horse. He petted it gently as it munched through the soft fruit. Hilda’s stomach growled low. She would have been full of Scotch broth and bannocks and tucked into her bed by now. Her long day at the market resulted in the only food being a biscuit she bought from the baker on her way.
After the horse finished its snack, Dorian returned to the saddle and clipped the tonnag around her shoulders. It was soft and warm, and smelled distinctly of the hearth and fire. He took care not to touch her indecently, and Hilda was reaffirmed that he wouldn’t harm her. After making sure it was secure, Dorian reached around and snagged the reins.
“What do ye even need from me?” Hilda dared, and Dorian snapped the reins. The horse resumed its trot. “I’m just a healer, and not even the most reputable in the area.”
“I need yer help,” he answered simply. “A person in my castle is ill, and I am in need of a healer like yerself.”
“Surely you have one,” she said before she could stop herself.
Dorian’s eyes flicked to hers like a flame. No, Hilda corrected herself. The infamous Laird of Arundel very much did not keep healers in his castle. Nor would anyone want to live there in the first place. It was no secret that Dorian Bradforde murdered his father in cold blood simply because he could. Whoever needed healing in his castle must be someone very close to him to have him being warm and gentle to a healer.
The slow trot of the horse’s hooves was melodic, and the warmth of the tonnag was luring Hilda into an easy sleep. She was exhausted, having been awake since sunup and now long past sundown. Her eyes felt heavy, but she scolded herself to stay awake. She needed to remember the path back home so when she arrived at Arundel Castle, and after healing whoever was sick, she could run. But the green hills of the Highlands stretched before her, seemingly endless, and after a while, she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer.
After a moment, she finally slouched against him. Dorian looked down, seeing her eyes were closed and her breathing was rhythmic. Poor lass, he thought. She must be exhausted, given the day she had. And who knows what else had happened before she had run into him. Quite literally, mind you.
Her brown eyes were the first thing he noticed when she looked up at him. They were not dark like is own, but a warm brown. And in the fading sunlight of the day, they appeared almost gold. Color aside, she was clearly petrified, and having narrowly escaped the same torment that had befallen Chloe—
Those men were lucky to still be alive and walking back with their tails between their legs. He swore if he ever saw those men again, they wouldn’t be so lucky the second time around. Dorian was a lot of things: heartless, indifferent, rude, and perhaps even cruel. But he never mistreated a lady. Which seemed a little ironic, but he didn’t nab her for the pleasures of her body. He needed her skills with herbs, and he would be true to his word to return her to her home.
He looked down at her again. Hilda, he thought softly. Her wild, curly, red hair was out of its tie and spread like flames around her freckled face. She looked peaceful asleep, and she was nestled perfectly against him. It was strangely intimate, and he couldn’t remember a time when a woman made his heart beat the way his was now.
He smirked as he remembered the slap across his face. She was a wee thing, petite and short. But her body was all muscle, and there was a bit of a bite to her hit. Dorian dimly wondered how the other guy that made advances on her had fared. Based on the estimation of her slap, he probably was a little worse off. To have a woman be so independent and actively disobey all rules of propriety, well…that was Dorian’s type of lass.
As Ragnhall slowed his pace, and Dorian himself felt a bit tired, he made the decision to set up camp for the night. Arundel Castle was another day’s ride away, and Chloe was in desperate need of a healer. But Dorian knew better than anyone that a tired horse got you nowhere—and a tired healer was of no use.
He pulled off the trail and into the thicket of trees. He dismounted his stallion, and moved to the saddle bags. Hilda had made a soft mewl in protest at the lost body heat, which had his member twitching under his kilt. He rummaged around to fetch supplies to set up camp, and managed to even leave Ragnhall at a tree to gather wood.
Walking carefully, using the little moonlight available to guide him, Dorian picked up the driest branches and bramble he could find. He even managed to find some berries to eat, which would go well with his salted rabbit meat he had in his pouch. When he returned to the clearing where he had left his trusty stallion, Hilda was wide awake and struggling against the ropes that held her to the saddle.
“Ye sleep well?” he asked, leaning against the nearest tree. It was slightly amusing to watch her struggle, her brows knit together in concentration. Her eyes found his, and he gave her a smirk. “And it really is nay use strugglin’.”
“I had hoped it was nothin’ but a dream,” she sighed, as if her worst fears were confirmed. My reputation precedes me, Dorian thought. “I really am the captive of the Laird of Arundel.”
With a sarcastic bow, Dorian gave a wave, “At yer service, lass.”
Hilda stopped struggling and looked around at her surroundings. Not that there was much of anything to identify where they were. It was a frequent area for travelers to find themselves lost in, which is in part why Dorian loved the location of his castle. He and his family were very difficult to find, even for a skilled Highlander.
“Where are we?” Hilda asked.
“About a day’s ride,” Dorian answered and moved off of the tree and walked up to her, deciding she was probably not going to run. She was exhausted and in unfamiliar territory. “But rest assured, lass. We are on Arundel lands. Ye will be safe.”
“Obviously, I’m captive to the devil himself,” she spat with a glare. “It cannae get much worse than that.”
Dropping the ropes at her wrists, he walked back to the area he set for camp. He began making the fire to keep them warm. Her words hurt more than Dorian cared to admit. But he shrugged it off, continuing to build the camp in silence. He had nothing to say to the lass, and he prayed that she would be smart enough to keep her mouth shut while he worked. However, there was no such luck.
“Ye cannae just leave me here, tied to yer brute of a horse,” she cried indignantly.
As if taking offense to her remark, Ragnhall snorted and stomped a large hoof in defiance. Dorian had about had it with her snippy attitude, damning the lass for being so bold that it both annoyed him and made him rather stiff in the groin. Marching up to her, he curled a hand around the ropes around her wrists, pulling her down a bit so that she was eye level with him.
“Listen close, lass,” he growled. If she thought him a heartless bastard, then who was he to deny her the act? “This is my land. And I am its laird. Do ye understand me? Because keep it up, and I may just throw ye to the wolves and ravagers that lay around these parts.”
Hilda’s eyes were wide with the threat. And while he didn’t mean to scare the poor girl, he didn’t want her to run off either. Gruffly, he undid the knot of rope, letting it slide free from her wrists. Carefully, he snatched her wrists with his hands, looking for rope burn marks. He tried to tie the rope in such a manner as to prevent that, but with all the squirming around she did there was no promising.
“Aye, I’m fine,” she huffed, snatching her wrist away.
She swung herself from the horse, and all but crashed into Dorian. Hilda must have thought Ragnhall was shorter, or her taller, because there was a significant drop between her and the ground. Dorian wrapped his arms around her small waist and kept her from falling onto the unforgiving ground. Her breasts were pressed against his chest, and her body warm and soft against him. She smelled like wildflowers, he noticed.
“Ye keep crashin’ into me lass, and I’ll be thinkin’ that ye actually fancy me,” he smirked, looking down at her in his arms.
He set her down on her feet and began busying himself with the camp. As the fire kindled and began to crackle, Dorian took out the strips of rabbit he had from a pouch and pierced them both with a long dagger he had tucked into his trews. Hilda stayed put by Ragnhall, and Dorian tried to shake off the idea that she didn’t want to be near him.
“Ye’ll starve if ye keep standin’ there,” Dorian said finally with a huff. “Rabbit is bein’ cooked, and I picked some berries out in the woods that are safe to eat.”
Cautiously, Hilda walked up to the fire. She noticed the long tartan blanket that was spread by the fire, and she took a slow seat on the ground. She didn’t say anything, just watching the flames as they licked the rabbit meat. Her eyes were sunk in from the day, and Dorian assumed that she was probably starving. He had worked up quite the appetite himself.
He could hear Zea’s voice now, as if she was at the campfire with them. Lass, ye need to eat more, the plump maid that was practically Dorian’s mother would say. He could even imagine her, hand on her hip and waving a wooden spoon in defiance at Hilda. And the thought made him smile that Hilda should be received so warmly.
After cooling the rabbit slices on a nearby rock, he gave one to Hilda with a handful of the berries. He watched her intently, making sure she ate. She took a small bite at first, and then another. After she was eating consistently and hungrily, Dorian started his meal. He bit into the tender salted meat, glad to have something in his stomach besides water.
Hilda finished her meal fast, licking her fingers of the salt and berry juice. And Dorian would kill to be one of those fingers. Her lips were sensual in their movements, and it was the innocence that she had about her while she did it that got him hard. She looked at him with a question on her lips when Dorian heard a twig snap.
They froze. Hilda’s eyes locked on to Dorian, and he primed himself for whatever was going to emerge out of the trees. Reaching for his blade, he casually cleaned it on his kilt. There was silence, but he wasn’t going to let his guard down. He stood up easily, and offered a hand to Hilda.
“Would the lass like to dance?” he asked, keeping his eyes at the trees.
Hilda looked at him like he had lost his brains. Which Dorian mused was slightly true, as he never asked a woman to dance. In fact, Dorian didn’t dance at all. He preferred the sidelines at ceilidhs and weddings, keeping to himself. But if he wanted to keep her close, he was going to need to dance. She placed her small hand in his, and he pulled her up and flush to his body.
He started to sway and enjoyed the feeling of her body on his. Her eyes went back to that warm brown color from earlier, and he was mesmerized. But he saw in the trees a hulking figure, and he nuzzled her neck. She gasped softly, and in any other scenario he would have liked to bed her at the sound, but this was not the time nor the place.
“Hilda,” he whispered. He saw a small grouping of rocks over to the side—the perfect spot for Hilda to hide. Whatever these rogues wanted, it was either her or the money, and they weren’t going to get either one unless he was stone cold dead. “For once in yer life, listen to a warning. When I say run, ye run to the rocks over to the left. Nod if ye got all that.”
The Battle with Rogues
The grass gave way under her feet as she ran. The rocks seemed to move farther and farther away from her as she got closer. The night smelled of fresh grass and smoke from the fire, the insects chirping along as if a raid between humans was nothing more than commonplace and happened nightly.
For all Hilda knew, around these parts, it was a common occurrence. She grabbed fistfuls of her skirt as she ran, intent on not tripping on her way to the rocks. Her heart pounded in her ears, fear lacing through her veins. Whatever this band of thieves wanted, it was enough to have Dorian concerned for her safety. Hilda saw it in his eyes when he looked at her when he gave the command to run.
She reached the rocks safely, keeping her back to the impending fight. Hilda tried to catch her breath, but it seemed impossible with the crush of fear and panic on her chest. Her brain eventually began to rationalize the situation, and she remembered that she was not helpless. Far from it actually. She felt in the pockets of her dress for the little bone handled knife her mother had given her years ago.
Ye never ken when ye’ll stumble upon herbs, Hilda, her mother’s voice rang in her head.
Or stumble upon the most dangerous laird in Scotland and get attacked by bandits, she added. It was comforting to hold the coldness of the handle in her hand, the smoothness from heavy use reassuring Hilda that they would make it out alive. At least…she hoped. The Laird of Arundel was a good fighter, or at least so she had heard. And the sounds of the battle were comfortingly proving that wee tale to be more true than false.
Taking deep breaths, she forced herself to calm down. Dorian was more than capable in a fight—not to mention he was extremely dangerous. The men who decided to attack them were either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid, and Hilda preferred to gamble on the latter of the choices.
She expected someone to find her. Her eyes strained against the darkness of the night, but there was no movement that she could see. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else out there. Hilda tried not to even breathe, her harsh pants sounding like roars in her ears. There was a clang of metal from the area of camp.
The battle had begun.
Dorian braced himself for the fight. He drew his sword out from the scabbard on the ground next to the fire. Hilda, surprisingly, followed his command and had bolted to the rocks without a second warning. At least she’s safe, Dorian thought. He wielded his sword out in front of him with both hands, the familiar leather of the hilt under his palms.
A hulking figure walked out of the trees. The rogue was tall, but not as tall as Dorian. But definitely just as broad and muscular. It would be a fair fight if it were to be just between the two men, but Dorian highly doubted that this man was traveling alone. He wore a plain kilt, and Dorian couldn’t quite make out the colors. He had long, scraggly red hair and an untamed beard. Dorian wouldn’t place this rogue much older than himself, but his untamed appearance aged the man beyond his years.
Not that Dorian was against violence, or even battle for that matter, but if something could be done to get the rogues to move along without a fight, he knew Hilda would be better for it. The Highlands could be savage, especially on Arundel lands. But Dorian’s reputation kept it to a minimum. Nevertheless, he wasn’t keen about women traveling through the lands in general.
“Aye, ye are on my lands,” Dorian boomed powerfully, but the man said nothing. He continued his advance to Dorian, and there was not much to do other than to prepare for a battle. “I’ll ask ye and yer friends to be on yer way just once. So be gettin’ on.”
“I ken who ye are, Laird,” the other man bellowed. “And I have been sent to come claim what ye have stolen.”
“Stolen, aye?” Dorian asked, perplexed. All I have, I have earned, he thought. He had not stolen once, despite the rumors that he stole his father’s position out of pure greed. But his mother raised him a fearing man, and thievery would not be tolerated. And he wouldn’t disgrace his mother like that. “What do ye reckon I’ve stolen?”
“Somethin’ that belongs to a vera powerful man,” the rogue replied, cryptically. “And I havenae been given any orders to say that I cannae kill ye in the process.”
And with that, he drew his weapon from its scabbard and engaged in battle with Dorian, charging with his sword high. Dorian had enough time to prepare for the strike; the clash of metal rang through the night. The blow had shocked Dorian with its force—a fair battle it would be between the two, but he was the fearsome Laird of Arundel. There was no better a fighter than him.
Dorian shoved the man off of him, going in for a counter strike that was blocked. Deftly, he swung his shoulders out and around and landed the next strike at the man’s left calf. The rogue let out a grunt of pain, but didn’t fall. The rogue took his chance, plunging a dagger into Dorian’s side. The wound stung, but it felt like nothing more than that.
With a renewed vengeance, Dorian swung his sword down fast, separating the hand from its limb. Stumbling back, the rogue looked at the stump. Unfazed, Dorian pulled the dagger from his side and threw it on the ground. But the battle was not over, and there was not much the man could do with one hand.
Dorian ran at him and threw his whole weight onto the burly man. Stumbling, they both hit the dirt. But given that—even injured—Dorian was faster, he bolted to his feet. Dorian went to swing again when there was a forceful hit to his back with the pummel of a sword, sending him off balance.
With an oomph, he hit the solid ground. Another rogue scrambled on top of Dorian, wielding a knife. This one was smaller, and younger too. Probably around his teens, and an innocent look in his eyes. The lad had soot black hair and clear blue eyes, and he aimed his dagger down with a shaking hand. Dorian wrapped a large arm around the boy’s shoulders, easily tossing him aside.
The bigger rogue from before wasted no time on the advantage of having Dorian on the ground. He stomped a firm foot onto his chest, leaving Dorian winded. Followed up by a solid kick to his ribs, Dorian rolled over to avoid a second stomping. The brute put his foot on Dorian’s head and applied pressure. The fire was hot on his face, and Dorian got an idea.
Reaching out slowly, he wrapped his hand around a log of the firewood. The rogue was not paying attention to Dorian’s hand, applying more pressure on his skull with his foot. Bring it up slowly, the flames licking at his skin, he waited for the flames to catch on to the kilt of the brute. In no time, the fabric was burning away. The surprise was all Dorian needed.
The rogue lifted his foot, batting at the flames. He grabbed the man’s foot before it was just out of reach, and, with a show of force, turned it hard and fast the opposite direction. The bone cracked, and the bigger man fell down on top of Dorian. The amount of muscle had pinned Dorian under the struggling man. Grunting, he rolled the man off of him, and he heard a howl of pain. Standing up, he watched as the man flopped on the flames of the fire, the burning smell of flesh hitting his nose.
He turned to the smaller rogue, who was watching his compatriot slowly pull himself out of the fire with wide eyes. Dorian tried to block out the wails of pain, the burns on his hand already proof that fire was not comfortable on flesh. Much less when you are dying, without use of both hands and ankles with which to pull yourself up. Slowly, Dorian picked up his dropped sword, and levelled it at the young boy.
Dorian looked at the boy hard and steady. The lad couldn’t have been much more than Chloe’s age. And he obviously was not one for murderer, or much had the stomach for death. And he knew that the boy was nothing much in terms of a threat. He was terrified of Dorian, which was typical.
As he should be, Dorian thought. Smart lad. Dorian put his sword down, and he watched the boy gulp in fear.
“Who sent ye?” Dorian demanded.
“A laird,” the boy managed. “That’s all I ken, I swear.”
The boy’s eyes were large, clearly terrified. He wouldn’t be much for information either, Dorian decided. A small boy to fit in small places that the larger, now dead, rogue couldn’t—it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary to see such a pairing in the Highlands. There was no need to strike him down. Dorian nodded to the boy, his signal that Dorian was sparing his life.
“Aye, lad,” he grunted. “Get lost before I change my mind.”
And the boy scampered off, running into the darkness in the opposite direction of Arundel Castle. He watched as the boy disappeared. His heart began to slow its pace, returning to a resting beat. Slowly, like a deer in hiding, Hilda peered around the rocks. Her face was hard set in preparation to fight, but her eyes softened when she saw it was just Dorian in the clearing.
“Ye can come out now,” Dorian said. “I willnae bite.”
She took more confident, sure steps the closer she got to him. An easy breeze blew over him, almost putting out the dwindling flames. He watched as she carefully managed her way over the land, holding her skirts at her side. He noticed that Hilda was carrying a small knife.
Since when did she get that? he thought.
But as she got closer, he could see her face change. Where originally she looked relieved, her face had morphed into something different entirely. Her eyebrows were high, her eyes turned down. The lines around her mouth were set in a frown, her lips slightly parted.
She looked petrified. A healer saw death and frequently, and Dorian assumed it was due to the burnt corpse on the ground. People of all ages died for unknown and known reasons. But to witness gruesome, violent deaths was not a thing any woman should see. Fearless and confident as she may be, Hilda was not a fighter nor a soldier. This bloodshed was altogether shocking. But her eyes were trained on him, and Dorian refused to hide.
Let her see the monster I am, he thought. Let her be scared.
“Dorian,” she said, her brown eyes wide in the light of the moon. “Yer bleedin’.”
He put a hand to his side where the dagger had hit. Even in the low firelight, he saw the bright red of blood. Dots danced in front of his eyes, and he turned to a very concerned Hilda. She was talking, but he couldn’t hear her. And he collapsed to the ground.
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