Surrender to an Irish Warrior

Ireland, 1180

Chapter One

The autumn wind was frigid, cutting through his cloak in a dark warning that he needed to seek shelter, and soon. Yet, Trahern MacEgan hardly felt the cold. For the past season, he’d felt nothing at all, his emotions as frigid as the surrounding air.

Vengeance consumed him now, along with the fierce need to find the men who had killed Ciara. He’d left his home and family, returning to the southwest of Éireann, where the Ó Reilly tribe dwelled at Glen Omrigh.

His brothers didn’t know of his intent to find the raiders. They believed he was traveling again, to visit with friends and tell his stories. As a bard, he rarely stayed in one place for very long, so they weren’t at all suspicious. But for this journey, he’d wanted to be alone. His brothers had their wives and children to guard. He’d never risk their safety, not when they had so much to lose. He had no one, and he preferred it that way.

The land was more mountainous here, with green hills rising from the mist. A narrow road snaked through the valley, and misty warm clouds released from his horse’s nostrils. The emptiness suited him, for he’d never expected to lose the woman he’d loved. Earlier in the summer, Ciara’s brother Áron had sent word that the cashel had been attacked by Viking raiders. Ciara had been caught in the middle of the battle, struck down and killed when she’d tried to flee.
The devastating news had kept him from Glen Omrigh for months. He didn’t want to see Ciara’s grave or hear the sympathy from friends. More than anything, he needed to forget.

But time hadn’t dulled his pain; it had only heightened it. He shouldn’t have left her. The guilt consumed him, eating away at the man he was. Hatred flowed within his veins now, suffocating the pain of loss. The anguish had been replaced with rage, a sense of purpose. He was going to find the raiders, and when he did, they would suffer the same fate Ciara had endured.

When the sun grew lower in the sky, he set up a fire and unpacked the tent. Though he could have finished his journey to Glen Omrigh, had he continued to ride for another few hours, he preferred to spend the night alone.

The flames licked at the wood, flaring bright orange against the night sky. Tomorrow, he would reach the cashel and begin tracking his enemy.
Trahern stretched out upon his cloak, watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the evening while he ate. In the distance, he heard the faint rustling of leaves against the forest floor. Likely animals. Even so, he reached for his blade.

The movement was heavier than a squirrel or a fox. No, this was human, not an animal. Trahern clenched his sword, waiting for the person to draw closer.
Abruptly, a figure emerged from the trees. It was a young maiden, perhaps thirteen, wearing a ragged white léine and a green overdress. Dirt matted her face, and she held out her hands near the fire. She was so thin, it looked as though she hadn’t eaten a full meal in weeks. Long brown hair hung to her waist, and she wore no shoes.

Jesu, her feet must be frozen.

“Who are you?” he asked softly. She kept her gaze averted, not answering his question. Instead, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, before she beckoned to him.

“Come and warm yourself,” he offered. “I have food to share, if you are hungry.”

She took a step towards the fire, but shook her head, pointing to the trees behind her. Trahern studied the place but saw no one. Although the girl raised her hands to warm them in front of the fire, her expression grew more fearful. Again, she gestured toward the trees.

“What is it?” he asked.

Coughing, she moved her mouth, as though she hadn’t spoken in a long time. “My sister.”

Trahern rose to his feet. “Bring her here. She can warm herself and eat. I’ve enough for both.” It wasn’t true, but he didn’t care if they depleted his supplies or not. Better to let the women sate their hunger, for he could always hunt.

The girl shook her head again. “She’s hurt.”

“How badly?”

She didn’t answer but beckoned to him as she walked back toward the forest. Trahern eyed his horse, then the wooded hillside. Though it was faster to ride, the trees grew too close for a horse. He had no desire to venture into the woods, particularly when it would be dark within another hour. But neither could he allow this girl to leave with no escort. Grimacing, he fashioned a torch out of a fallen branch. He slung his food supplies over one shoulder, not wanting to leave them behind.

The girl led him uphill for nearly half a mile. The ground was covered with fallen leaves, and he was careful to hold the torch aloft. They crossed a small stream, and not far away, he spied a crude shelter. Built from the remains of an old roundhouse, he followed the girl inside.

“What is this place?” he murmured. Isolated from anywhere else, he couldn’t imagine why it was here.

“A hunting shelter,” she answered. “Morren found it years ago.”

Inside, the hearth was cold, the interior dark. Then, he heard the unmistakable moans of a woman. “Build a fire,” he ordered the girl, handing her the torch.
Then he leaned down to examine the woman lying upon the bed. She was wracked with shivers, clutching the bedcovers to her chest. Her legs jerked with pain, and when he touched her forehead, she was burning with fever.

Trahern let out a curse, for he wasn’t a healer. He could tend sword wounds or bruises, but he knew nothing about illnesses that ravaged from inside the body. The woman was in a great deal of pain, and he didn’t have any idea what to do for her.

He eyed the young girl who was busy with the fire. “Your sister needs a healer.”

“We don’t have one.” She shook her head.

Trahern sat down and removed his shoes. Though they would never fit her, it was better than nothing. “Put these on. Tie them if you have to.”
She hesitated, and he gentled his tone. “Go back to my camp and take my horse. If you ride hard for the next few hours, you can reach Glen Omrigh. Take the torch with you.”

Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t even consider sending a young girl out by herself in the dark. But between the two of them, he had a greater chance of sustaining the wounded woman’s life until help arrived. Trahern had no doubt that the Ó Reilly men would accompany the girl back with the healer, once she made it there safely.

“If you can’t make it that far, seek help at St. Michael’s Abbey.”

The girl started to refuse, but Trahern leveled a dark stare at her. “I can’t save her alone.”

He wondered what had become of their kin. Had they been killed during the raid? Since the girl had not mentioned anyone, Trahern suspected they were alone.

Reluctance colored her face, but at last the girl nodded. “I’ll find someone.” She tied his shoes on, using strips of linen. Without another word, she seized the branch he’d used as a torch and left them alone.

It would be hours before the girl returned, and he hoped to God she wouldn’t abandon them. Trahern struggled to remember what his brother’s wife Aileen would have done, when healing a wounded person. He recalled how she examined the wounded person from head to toe.

“Sometimes, you’ll find an injury where you least expect it,” she’d said.

Trahern moved beside the woman. Her eyes were closed, and she shuddered when he touched her hand, as though his fingers were freezing cold.
“It’s all right,” he said softly. “You’ll be safe now.” He studied her closely. Though her face was thin from hunger, her lips were full. Long fair hair lay matted against her cheek. He sensed a strength beneath the delicate features, and though the fever was attacking her body, she fought it back.
She wore a ragged léine that covered her torso, and the thin fabric was hardly enough to keep anyone warm. Trahern brought his hands gently down her face, to her throat. Down her arms, he touched, searching for whatever had caused the fever.

“Don’t,” she whimpered, her hands trying to push him away. Her eyes remained closed, and he couldn’t tell if his touch was causing her pain or whether she was dreaming. He stopped, waiting to see if she would regain consciousness.

When she didn’t awaken, he continued onward, pulling back the coverlet. It was then that he saw the reason for her agony. Blood darkened her gown below the waist. Her stomach was barely rounded from early pregnancy, and she tightened her knees together, as if struggling to stop the miscarriage.
Jesu. He murmured a silent prayer, for it was clear that he’d arrived too late. Not only was she going to lose this child, but she might also lose her life.
You have to help her, his conscience chided. He couldn’t be a coward now, simply because of his own ignorance. Nothing he did would be any worse than the pain she was already suffering.

Reluctantly, he eased up her léine, wishing he could protect her modesty somehow. “It’s going to be all right, a chara. I’ll do what I can to help you.”

From the book Surrender to an Irish Warrior
Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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