"This does not feel right, Guardian." The old warrior shifted warily in his saddle. Every few seconds, he would glance back the way they had come, the dark foreboding forest eerily silent. Hand on the hilt of his sword, the robust warrior felt as if they were being watched. The clomping of the horses' hooves and his gravelly voice were the only sounds the group had heard since morning.
"MacIntosh gave his word that we would have safe passage. He would not break it unless he wanted war," replied Guardian. Still, a gloved hand curled around the emerald encrusted hilt of the sword, tensing as the hair rose on the back of her neck.
"Since when did we trust MacIntosh?"
"I thought we didn't trust anyone?"
"I apologize, Guardian. I wasn't aware that my brother was so…dim-witted."
The brothers glared at each other. As the group moved forward, an uneasy silence settled over them. Withdrawing her sword, the six men followed her lead. Silently, they surrounded Guardian. Weapons poised at their sides, ready for an attack. Their eyes darted back and forth. Looking for any sign of an ambush.
She pulled her grey cloak tight against her. Tucking back a few wayward strands of dark midnight hair into her hood, she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Throwing caution to the wind, the group set off at a gallop. Kicking up loose rocks, Guardian was no longer concerned about covering their tracks. Obviously someone had been tracking them. She needed to get her men to safety. The hawk that flew above them beat its wings furiously to keep up.
Just as they were about to clear the woods, the hawk let out a piercing shriek. Without looking, Guardian knew that they were surrounded. She stopped and looked up, watching Seasnon soar against the grey sky. The hawk let out one more shriek and dived to his left.
Within seconds, men came pouring out; swords drawn and the roar of battle cries filled the air. Yelling, her second in command charged forward. Lifting his sword high above his head, the enraged warrior brought it crashing down onto the other man's skull.
Ciarán jumped off his horse. His shoulder length ebony hair flew wildly around him as he twisted and turned, blocking his attacker's deadly blows. Baring his teeth, he thrust his sword into his opponent's stomach. Gripping the hilt, he slashed across. As he stopped to catch his breath, a man ran at him, his sword aimed at his heart. So much for safe passage, he thought as he blocked the attack.
Gavin's gravelly bellow echoed throughout the forest. Running forward, he speared a man with his sword. Spinning around, he aimed a high kick at his attacker. Catching him in the jaw, the sound of breaking bones filled the air. The man howled in pain. Clutching his face, he ran.
"No, you don't," Gavin said quietly. Reaching down, he pulled a long dagger from his boot. Closing one eye, he drew his arm back. "Hold it right…there!" Swiftly, the dagger left his hand and buried itself in the man's heart.
Guardian slipped from her horse, wanting to make it easy for her attackers to kill her. Keith and Bran stayed with Guardian, fending off any attackers while she notched another arrow. Letting it fly, it struck a man in the forehead. She quickly readied another arrow as her next opponent ran towards her. Taking aim, she let loose. Narrowly, she missed her target.
Cursing under her breath, she reached back only to feel air. Panic enveloped her as she continued to grope around, desperately hoping to grasp the invisible arrow. "Not now, this cannot be happening now!" Fear blanched her skin a deathly white. Her eyes widened in horror as she realized her attacker was almost upon her. Her heart crashed against her chest. Her voice came out garbled as she tried to yell. Her palms felt clammy as she held the useless bow.
The sounds of swords clashing reached her ears. Of course! Why hadn't she thought of that sooner? Throwing down her bow, she reached for her sword that she had stabbed into the hard ground. An ogre of a warrior charged them. Before Keith or Bran had time to react, Guardian wrenched the hard metal from the cold earth. Running forward, she took careful aim. With one thrust, she speared the attacker in the chest.
As she withdrew her sword, a small band of warriors came walking out of the forest. No battle cries sounded and no swords were out, instead they just seemed content to watch the battle. The twins, Torin and Liam were fighting back to back and were quickly becoming outnumbered. Thinking to help them, Guardian rushed forward, only to be stopped by a wall of muscle.
"Stay with us Guardian! The twins don't need to worry about you now," Keith snapped. Not bothering to wait for a reply, he grabbed Guardian around the waist and shoved her behind him. Ciarán joined them then. A deadly look shone in his eyes as he placed his back to her. Bran did the same.
Two warriors charged them, swords raised above their heads, their lips curled up and malice in their eyes. One of the warriors broke away from his partner and leapt at Keith. Knocking him to the ground, he pinned Guardian beneath him. Ciarán and Bran were too busy fighting to see that she was trapped. Trying to pull free, she could feel her leg start to throb as Keith kept rolling back and forth to avoid his attacker's blows.
Finally, the man knocked Keith's weapon out of his hand. The warrior raised his sword. Laughing madly, the weapon plunged downwards. Keith sharply inhaled, his hands grasping the steel as it punctured his chest. Yelling, the sword sunk further into the yielding flesh. The man continued to force the blade in until he heard a woman screaming.
Eyes wide he looked at Guardian. The crazed look left his face as realization dawned. His mouth dropped open. The man's hands stilled as he shook his head back and forth. Seizing the opportunity, Keith grabbed his sgian-dubh from his boot and drove it into the man's heart. He pushed the man off of him and tried to sit up. Guardian let out a yelp.
"Are you alright, lass?" Keith whispered to her, his breath coming in heaves.
"Aye. Are you?"
Keith nodded. Even injured, Guardian put his pain before her own. Glancing at her, he noticed that her hood was gone. He knew that he had to remove the sword before the enemy noticed her. If they got her, everything would be lost.
"Be brave lass, I'm going to try to remove the sword," he said with a grimace.
Keith heard the anguish and fear in her voice. He didn't want to cause her any more pain, but he had sworn an oath to his king that she would be safe. For a moment, he hated himself for what he was about to do. Grasping the hilt, he started to slowly pull the blade out.
"Guardian, run!" Ciarán yelled.
Looking up from where she laid, Guardian saw Ciarán being held back, struggling to get to her. All sound seemed to vanish and time no longer existed. She watched as her loyal fighters were taken hostage. Where had they come from? She noticed that their plaids were not of the MacIntosh. Pain coursed through her, a steady throb in her thigh. It was so intense that she barely acknowledged the ache in her upper shoulder. Thinking that she had landed on a rock, she reached back.
"I would not do that if I were you, lass." The deep, sensual voice broke through the haziness of her mind.
Turning her head to the voice, she looked up and into the most beautiful face she had ever seen. Deep brown eyes met her hazel ones and shock registered on his face before quickly being replaced by a grim expression. His lips were firm and sensual, his jaw square, and surprisingly, his nose was straight. A miracle that was, she thought, given his profession.
His eyebrow raised a fraction and the corner of his mouth started to twitch into a half smile. His dark brown hair was cut short, close to the head not like the man who crouched beside him, she noticed. The man's straight blonde hair was tightly bound at the base of his neck. The man wore the same grim look as his friend did but his electric blue eyes held a look of sympathy.
"This is going to hurt but it is the only way to free you," he said as he tore a strip of cloth from his plaid, "Here take this, you can bite down on it when Ramsay removes the sword. My name is Wolfe by the way."
"Wolfe?" she asked faintly.
"Yes, and like the animal I show no mercy when I attack. Do not fret, you will be avenged."
Remotely, she registered that her men had stopped shouting. The pain was becoming unbearable now. She heard Keith growling threats to Ramsay if he dared touch her. Wolfe smiled at her and she weakly smiled back. Shaking his head, Ramsay gripped the sword and hastily, pulled it free. She almost choked on the cloth in her mouth, when she took a breath to keep from screaming out.
Sword removed, Wolfe and another man came forward and lifted a silent Keith up. Dried blood covered him from head to toe. But the ever growing patch of bright red caught her eye. Trying to sit up, she felt a second stab of pain. As the object was taken out, pain radiated throughout her body. Not being able to take the torment any longer, she succumbed to the fogginess in her mind.
Suddenly the woman's eyes rolled in her head. Quickly moving towards her, Ramsay caught her before she fell. Tossing the blade to Wolfe, he lifted her up in his arms and a faint smell of lavender greeted him. Resisting the urge to bury his nose in her hair, he handed her to one of his men before vaulting onto his horse. Leaning down, he grabbed Guardian by her waist and settled her onto his lap before giving instructions to some of his men to remove the bodies from the clearing. The rest were to follow him back to the keep.
He wasn't sorry about the loss of life. The dead men wore MacIntosh's colors and had trespassed onto his land. He and his men had watched from the shadows until they noticed that more were coming. Wanting to even the odds, Ramsay joined the fight. Knowing that this would lead to war, he no longer cared.
He was enjoying himself too…until he had seen the long, cascading ringlets of black hair that could only belong to a woman. The force of the blow that the warrior in the front took had knocked off the hood of the warrior behind him. And that's when Ramsay's suspicion was confirmed.
The warrior was actually a woman! Outraged, he slashed his way to her. He had to get to her before the MacIntosh men did. He knew of the vile things those men did to women and couldn't let that happen to her. Relief flooded him when he reached her and knew she would be safe.
But try as he might, he couldn't explain why he felt so possessive over the woman. A beautiful woman at that, he thought as he looked down. Her oval-shaped face framed a straight nose. Her milky white skin offset her full pink mouth. Dark eyelashes fanned her checks.
The horse's brisk gait caused some locks to brush against his bare arm, quickening his pulse. She sighed and snuggled deeper into his arms. Ramsay knew by her even breaths that the sleeping draught Wolfe had soaked his cloth strip in had done its job.
Wolfe rode up beside him, smiling. "She looks like a wee sprite. I cannot believe such a little thing killed five men."
"You saw it with your own eyes, Wolfe. Did you find out her name?"
"Yes." The twinkle of amusement glittered in Wolfe's eyes and he broke out into a grin.
"And?" Ramsay asked, starting to get impatient. He hated when Wolfe strung out answers. He shifted the sleeping woman so her head nestled against his neck and was greeted by another whiff of lavender.
"They call her Guardian," Wolfe drawled out. His laughter rang throughout the forest when Ramsay almost dropped the wee little sprite.