Isle of Lewis, 1592
Seated at a table in the back of the crowded alehouse, Aidan MacLeod attempted to slough off the burden of his responsibilities and enjoy the carefree companionship of his friends, and the voluptuous redhead in his lap.
“See what ye've been missin', MacLeod?” Gavin grinned at him from across the table, hauling a buxom blonde into his arms.
Aidan shook his head with a laugh and returned his attention to the greedy wench, who attempted to smother him in her bountiful charms.
“Ah, MacLeod, we've got company.”
Aidan drew his mouth from the lass's rosy-tipped breast. Ignoring her throaty groan of protest, he followed Gavin's gaze to the front of the alehouse. Torquil, his father's man-at-arms, stood in the entryway.
As he noted Torquil's grim expression, Aidan's lust was replaced with a heavy sense of foreboding. He eased the woman from his lap and came to his feet. Without taking his eyes from the silver-haired man-at-arms, he tossed her some coin and motioned for her to take her leave.
She sidled up to him, her heavy scent cloying. “I'll take yer coin, laddie, but I'd much rather ye give me this.” To the amusement of his companions, she groped the front of his trews.
He shot her an impatient look and brushed her hand aside. “My father's back?” he asked the thickset man, who now stood before him.
“Aye, I had no chance to warn ye, lad. We leftâ”
Before Torquil could finish his explanation, Aidan grabbed his woolen cloak off the bench and headed for the door. His companion's entreaty to remain fell on deaf ears. His wee brother was alone and unprotected.
Thunder rumbled overhead as Aidan strode across the rainsoaked yard to the stables. Cursing every moment of delay, he kicked off the mud that caked his boots against the edge of the door. The stable hand, who had been lolling against a bale of hay, leapt to his feet.
“Bring me my mount, and his,” Aidan added, sensing Torquil's presence behind him.
“Dougal will keep the lad out of the laird's way. He'll come to no harm,” Torquil said as he attempted to reassure him.
Aidan swept droplets of rain from his face and focused on the man-at-arms. “Are ye tellin' me my da is no' drunk, then?” If that were the case, it would do much to allay the fear icing Aidan's veins.
Sober, his father would do nothing more to his young brother than ignore him, and although hurtful to the bairn, it would do little more than wound his heart. But if his father was in his cups, that was another matter entirely.
His question was met with tight-lipped silence and Aidan cursed. He accepted Fin's reins with a muttered thanks and leapt onto the stallion's back, turning him toward home.
Moments later, Torquil's big bay caught up to him. Despite the fading light, Aidan could see the man was holding something back. “What havena ye told me?”
Torquil raised his voice to be heard above the thunder of the horses' hooves. “'Tis the day of the lad's birth is all, and ye ken how yer fatherâ”
Aidan's disgusted bellow was lost in the wind. Of all the days to leave his brother alone, he'd chosen this one. With his father away at court, he'd taken the opportunity to join his friends in the hunt and a night of pleasure. At eighteen, he was more of a father to Lachlan than a brother, and lately he'd chafed at the responsibility. But never had he expected his actions would put his brother in danger.
The memory of Lachlan's birth eight years past escaped from where he'd locked it away. He tried to shove it back, but the words the old crone had uttered reverberated in his head, words that damned both his mother and his brother.
He has the mark of the Fae.
His mother's anguished cry of denial echoed in his head alongside his father's bellow of rage. Aidan squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the image of the bloody white linens shrouding his mother, the sound of his bare feet slapping against the cold stone as he ran from the room.
He wrapped his cloak tighter to ward off the bitter winds and memories. Bent low over Fin, he tore across the narrow wooden bridge, leaving Torquil far behind. Lights flickered in the distance as the tower came into view through a misty curtain of rain. Aidan's heart raced as he closed in on his home. His chest was so tight he could barely shout out his brother's name when Dougal met him in the deserted courtyard.
The old man's gnarled fingers clutched at Aidan's trews. “I canna find the lad or the laird.” He jerked his whiskered chin toward the keep. “All within are searchin' now, butâ”
Aidan met Dougal's worried gaze. No words needed to be exchanged. They both knew what had happened. His father had taken his brother to the cliffs. He'd uttered the threat often enough, only Aidan had never believed the man he once loved and admired would attempt such a heinous act. Even now, with every pained breath he took, he prayed he was wrong.
“Be careful, lad, I fear he's gone mad. I doona ken what set him off. Mayhap 'twas somethin' yer uncle said, but 'tis worse than before.”
Aidan gave a tight nod, blinking hard to keep his tears at bay. He was a man, and this was no time for a woman's emotion. With a sharp tug on Fin's reins, he brought the horse around and headed back into the night.
As the granite cliffs came into view, he called out his brother's name, but the words were lost on the plaintive howl of the wind. His eyes burned from straining to see through the gloaming, and the rain. A flash of lightning illuminated the rugged landscape. A hulking shadow dragged a struggling white bundle toward the rocks.
An agonized cry ripped from his throat. “Nay, Da, nay.” He leapt from Fin. His fear making him clumsy, he stumbled toward them.
“Ye canna stop me, Aidan. This day I will ken the truth.” Alexander MacLeod's words were thick and slurred. He jerked Lachlan's arm, and the bairn cried in anguish.
Aidan slammed down his anger and his fear. He needed to keep his wits about him. With his gaze trained on his father, he searched for an opportunity to get his brother out of harm's way. Inching closer, he heard the waves crash against the rocks below, smelled the salty tang of the sea air, and his senses reeled.
Lachlan whimpered. His eyes were wide with terror, golden curls plastered to his angelic face.
“Da, doona do this. Give him to me, please,” Aidan begged.
With a fierce shake of his head, Alexander snaked an arm around Lachlan, whose wee body convulsed with fear. Soaked to the skin, the white nightshirt clung to his brother's slight frame, and his bare feet dangled high above the ground. His father's blue eyes looked blackâwild and glazed. In that moment Aidan knew nothing he could say would stop his father. He had to act.
“I'm givin' him back to the Fae and ye canna stop me.” Alexander lost his footing on the rain-slicked turf and his hand shot out. Trying to regain his balance, he loosened his hold on Lachlan.
In his mindless state, his father's movements were slow and exaggerated. Aidan, seeing his advantage, threw himself forward. Grabbing his brother's outstretched arm, he wrenched Lachlan free from his father's hold. Aidan cradled Lan's trembling body to his chest and rolled a safe distance from the ledge. Alexander stumbled backward, his eyes widened, and his arms flailed. With a harrowing cry, he disappeared over the sheer rock face.
“Da!” Shoving Lachlan behind him, Aidan lunged to where his father clung to the rocky outcropping. He twined his fingers through Alexander's bony ones. The muscles in Aidan's arms quaked as he struggled to hold on. He tried to dig the toes of his boots into the wet earth, but found no purchase. The jagged rock scoured his chest as inch by inch Alexander's weight dragged Aidan over the edge of the cliff.
Their eyes held for a brief moment, and Aidan panicked at the grim resolve he saw in his father's watery blue gaze. “Nay, Da!” he cried as Alexander wrenched his fingers from Aidan's grasp. He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to witness his father falling into the churning black water below. Burying his head in his arms to drown out the last of Alexander's dying scream, he could no longer contain his heartbroken sob.
A warm breath whispered in his ear. “I can call the faeries, Aidan. She'll save him.”
White-hot rage flared to life inside him and he staggered to his feet, dragging his brother from the edge of the cliff. His fingers bit into Lan's narrow shoulders, and he shook him so hard his brother's head snapped back. “Never again, Lachlan, never again will ye speak of the Fae. Do ye hear me?”
Tears streamed down his brother's wee face and his lower lip quivered. “Aye, Aidan,” he whispered. “Aye.”
He sensed movement behind him and turned from Lan. Torquil and Dougal stood in silence by their mounts, then Dougal took a hesitant step toward him. “Give us the bairn. We'll see him home.”
The blinding haze of Aidan's anger dissipated. Looking down at Lachlan, he saw clearly the fear he'd put in his young brother's eyes. Aidan's chest tightened, and he swallowed past the suffocating knot in his throat. “Nay, I'll take him.”
He swung Lachlan into his arms and gave him a fierce hug before wrapping him in the blanket Torquil handed him. “I'd no' harm ye, brother. And I'll let no other put ye in harm's way. I'll protect ye always. Ye ken that, doona ye?”
Lachlan wrapped his thin arms around Aidan's neck and buried his face in his chest. “I ken, Aidan. I love ye.”
“I love ye, too, Lan.” Aidan vowed, if ever he had the chance, he'd make the Fae pay for what they'd done to his family.