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Synopsis

For hundreds of years, Scotland has battled the English for their freedom. Now, they face a new enemy. In a divided world between politics and religion, the young King James V faces the threat of his own people rebelling against him. As civil war breaks out among the Highland clans, James recruits a secret group of warriors for protection. He calls them the Protectors of the Crown.

Ian MacKay has one mission; to defend the crown no matter the cost. Along with his men, Ian’s mission is to hunt down one of the most dangerous men in the Highlands. But when the daughter of an enemy enters his life, his heart becomes captured instead.

Keira Sinclair has lived a life of peace and simplicity until now. With her clan on the verge of losing everything, she is forced to wed a Laird from a neighboring clan to ensure that hers survives. During her travels to her new home, her carriage is attacked and Keira is taken hostage by a ruthless man.

Caught in the middle of a war that she does not understand, will Keira’s secrets be safe, or will she succumb to the Highland warrior who now threatens to capture her heart?


Chapter 29

2

Pressing their horses to a full gallop, Ian and his men raced through the open field as fast as their horses could travel. Being exposed was as dangerous as engaging in battle without any armor or a weapon. Their enemies were gaining speed, and Ian heard the thundering hooves fast approaching behind them.
Damn Rylan for leading them straight through Sutherland territory! If only he had listened to sense and reason, they would not be racing toward Fraser land, going completely in the wrong direction. Their mission called for them to head south, not west. This unexpected turn of events would cost them at least a days’ worth of travel and if the bloody Sutherland’s didn’t run Rylan through, Ian would!
They had ridden too far to be delayed any longer and Ian hoped his dispute with the Sutherlands would be addressed another day. Though he was just as bloodthirsty as ever to rid every the land of every last filthy one of them, his duty to this mission was of the utmost importance.
Ian could feel the horses’ hooves sink into the sodden ground. His pulse matched their speed causing him to grip the reins tighter. Assessing the situation, their odds of escape without engaging their enemies were slim. At some point, sooner than later, their horses would lose their stamina and begin to slow. And whether it was from the horses or the unfavorable terrain as they near the vast mountain ranges, they would be forced to fight.
Leaving the clearing of the open prairie, they weaved around the narrow turns of trees causing Ian and his men to slow to a steady crawl. Knowing they were outnumbered, and their path was coming to an end as they neared the basin of the steep mountain range, they had little choice but to dismount and face off in battle. Ian raised his fist in the air, signaling for his men to slow their pace.
Dismounting, Ian stood, flanked with a dozen of his men. Amassing over the countryside, an onslaught of Sutherland men ran toward them like a scattering of army ants after a sweet prize. Ian drew his sword from its scabbard and waited as their enemies approached.
One after another, men filtered through the trees, charging toward him and his men. There were at least thirty men against him and his twelve companions. Though the odds were not favorable, they weren’t impossible either. Ian had seen worse and his men were well-trained warriors; adroitly skilled.
After all the battles Ian had encountered, each one had a sort of familiarity. Ian was attentive to every detail. From the way his enemy held his sword to the other potential threats around him. The Sutherlands, in Ian’s experience, were an unpredictable and disgraceful group of men. Filled with greed, they were fueled by desire for power. And like all thieves and bandits, their claim to his land was illegitimate.
The blade of Ian’s sword made contact repeatedly as he battled several men. Like flies to food, more Sutherlands joined the fight. Ian had no idea from where they came. Stepping in a pool of blood, bodies lay slain on the forest floor, including a few of his own men. Ian wiped the sweat from his brow with his arm, and continued fighting.
The sound of battle was deafening and the thunderous clashing of metal drowned out the grunts of exertion and the screams of the fallen. Exhaustion threatened to overtake him, but he continued to swing his sword. Battle not only caused a man to grow physically weary but dulled his mind, as well. Ian fought his body’s responses as diligently as he fought the attackers.
The Sutherland clansmen successfully herded Ian and his men out of the forest and back out into the open clearing. Ian heard a volley of arrows whistling in the sky just before they rained down upon them. Without the protection of the forest canopy, Ian thought perhaps death had finally come for him. Making peace with himself, Ian rejoiced at the thought of reuniting with his sweet Sarah. With her death, she’d taken his heart; he’d been left with an aching void that nothing seemed to fill.
It had been almost eight years since he’d lost her. Seven years, nine months and twenty-six days, Ian corrected himself. Damn it Sarah, why did ye leave me?
Contemplating death brought Ian back to the matter at hand. He refused to die by the hand of a Sutherland. As the arrows flew toward the apex of their arc, Ian warned his men and they scattered back into the woods for cover. As the Sutherland men chased after them, several of them were hit with their own men’s arrows, allowing Ian and his men enough time to return to the horses and escape.
“Did ye see that?” Daven laughed out as they quickly mounted. “Foolish bastards killed their own men!”
“They killed plenty of our own as well,” Ian replied as he noticed only five of them returned to the horses. Two of the five were from his own clan, his younger brother Leland and longtime friend Rylan. The other two men, Alec and Daven, were warriors from the Mckenna and MacLachlan Clans. “Let’s get this bloody mission o’er wit’ so we can go home!”
“What about the dead?” Leland asked.
Ian knew that with Sutherlands crawling all over the surrounding area there was little they could do. The only available option they had was to wait for the Sutherlands to leave in order to offer the dead a proper burial, but they had little time to wait and they’d already wasted enough time as it was.
“Tis nothin’ we can do, but pray fer their souls,” Ian bitterly replied.
Had the men been alive, they would have agreed. Staying would put the survivors in danger. Those who’d died knew the risks they faced with every mission.
Walking past Leland; he continued toward his horse and mounted. Leland turned his head back toward the trees where their dead lie upon the forest floor. Ian watched his younger brother as he slowly sauntered back to his horse. The men they had lost today were brave men. Their laird would have been proud.
Though Ian knew little about them, he felt the burden of their loss as if he had lost his own brothers; because in a sense, they were. They were sons of Scotland; Highlanders who fought together against tyranny and injustice.

The five remaining men rode in silence as they continued searching for the campsite they were sent to find. They had ridden more than three hours with no further sign of the Sutherlands, or the campsite.
Following the riverbed, Ian smelled smoke from an extinguished fire lingering in the air. Slowly and carefully, he scanned his surroundings; checking the trees, the hills, and even looking for strange movement in the tall grass. It was deathly quiet. Not even a bird’s sweet melody filled the air.
Ian was not about to chance his men traveling through yet another clearing. With a nod of his head, Ian and his men dismounted and stepped forward, following the scent of smoke. Keeping a watchful eye, they moved through the long grass to the grove of pine trees ahead. This has to be it, Ian thought. Releasing a deep breath, he felt relieved when they found a series of tents up ahead.
For weeks, they had searched for this campsite and now they had finally found it. From the plaids that were hung out to dry, Ian knew for certain that this was the campsite of Laird Chisholm and his men. Hell, their clan tartans were left out on display like flags waving in the air. The only problem was, the camp was vacant.
The tents were still erect and the embers in the fire pit still smoldering, indicated the occupants left in a hurry and were clearly expecting to return. It was odd, however, to find an abandoned camp. Surely, one or two men would have been left behind to secure what meager valuables they had. Even within the enclosure of the trees, the situation did not sit well with Ian. The scene had “trap” written all over it.
Ian and his men searched the tents for good measure but they were empty. Glancing over to Rylan, his most trusted, longtime friend, Ian could sense he had the same concerns about the potential for an ambush. With a sharp nod, Ian and the four other men snuck back to the horses they’d left grazing near the river. Now that they knew where to find the encampment, they would return at dusk. Stealthily, they crept through the bramble of broken tree limbs and fallen leaves until they returned to the river.
Though finding the camp was a success, finding it unoccupied made that success hollow to Ian. He was beginning to tire of this game of “hunt and chase” with Chisholm. Ian was sure of the facts his informant had given him, as he was a man of proven integrity and devotion to their cause. He swore to Ian that Chisholm was on his way to Inverness but had that been true, Ian would have crossed paths with him long before now. Something must have tipped him off that Ian’s men were close on his trail.
“Where do ye think they went?” Rylan asked.
Ian’s brow creased as he slowly shook his head in response.
“I dinna know, but they have no’ gone far. We are only a few miles south of Sutherland land. It is conceivable that they have gone there for supplies as Chisholm is in bed wit’ Sutherland. Based on the tracks we followed, it looks as though they have been camping there for quite some time, or at least ‘tis a favorable spot. Now that we know where to find ‘em, let’s head back to the road. We will return before nightfall. It’s only a matter of time before Thomas returns and,” Ian stopped in mid-sentence when he heard the sound of horses’ hooves kicking up gravel from the road in the distance. “Do ye hear that?” Ian asked as Rylan tilted his head toward the noise.
“Get down! Get down!” Ian called out as his men bolted to the ditch alongside the road.
As the noise came closer, Ian spotted two horses pulling a small carriage. Two young men dressed in Chisholm plaid sat on the bench holding the reins. Just when Ian thought his luck had completely run out and that he would never have the chance to confront Thomas Chisholm, fate had brought Thomas to him instead. For months, they’d played this cat and mouse game, but finally the tables had turned.
As the carriage came in full view, he could see that it was nobly decorated. It was apparent that Chisholm was not trying to conceal his whereabouts riding in such an ornately designed carriage. Had the man wanted to travel incognito, he would have ridden in a whiskey cart with a disguised monk at the helm; unless this was yet another decoy to throw off Ian and his men. After all, the carriage wasn’t riding particularly fast, but at a slow and steady pace. A smart man would have known it was dangerous traveling through this part of the Highlands. God damn, Thomas was a tricky man!
Ian had actually never met the man he was hunting. He did not even know all of the charges against him, nor did he care. Thomas Chisholm was only a target. Ian, along with his men were to detain Thomas and return him to Inverness; dead or alive, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
Crouched down in the tall thick grass, Ian and his men quietly waited for the carriage to come closer. Ian looked at Rylan and Leland, and at the nod of his head, they knew to be ready to mount their ambush. For years, these men had fought together. Like a band of brothers, they’d developed the ability to read each other with a mere glance. Within moments, all five men jumped out onto the road, blocking the path of the carriage. The horses veered to the side of the road, startled by the sudden appearance of the men.
Ian drew his weapon before either of the Chisholm men had a chance to remove theirs. Their eyes met Ian’s with cold terror. From the other side of the carriage, Rylan stepped up onto the drivers’ platform and disarmed the scrawny one. The driver on the right did not hesitate to throw his weapon down. He knew he had no chance with five armed men circling around them.
“Chisholm!” Ian growled out, waiting for him to come bursting out the door of the carriage demanding an explanation for why they had stopped.
But the door remained closed.
“Tis no’ Laird Chisholm we are escorting,” the younger man replied, his voice shaken.
“Get down,” ordered Rylan, keeping the tip of his sword pointed in their direction.
The two men did as they were told; dropping the reins and shuffling past one another. Ian let Rylan do as he wished with the men, for he knew Rylan would not kill them. Their mission was to capture Chisholm and take as few lives as possible.
Ian’s eyes diverted back to the carriage. If it was not Chisholm they were escorting, who was inside? These two men were certainly not guards by any means. They were as timid as field mice. Chisholm would have demanded his best guards protect him. It was clear that whoever sat inside the carriage was not someone Chisholm felt was valuable enough to send more than two young lads.
“Get o’er there!” Rylan shouted to the frightened young men as both Leland and Daven sifted through the luggage strapped to the back of the cart. Alec stood back as look out.
“Remove yer garments and take off that bloody Chisholm tartan. Yer braes too,” Rylan demanded.
“We will do no such thing!” one of the lads replied.
“Laddie, if ye dinna remove them, I will cut them off ye myself,” Rylan warned.
The lads looked at each other, then looked down with shame and did as they were ordered.
“Ian,” Daven said as he held up a ladies’ nightshift in his hands, draping it across the front of his body as if he was trying to model it.
The shift was white and trimmed with delicate blue lace, with tiny blue flowers stitched along the neckline. For the briefest of moments, Ian’s eyes shied away as a memory of his late wife, Sarah crept to the forefront of his mind. Thinking of her was just too painful and he’d tried so hard to forget that God awful day. The moment he saw the nightshift, Ian’s chest began to ache as if a sword had just run him through.
“Everything in these bags belongs to a woman!” Daven continued.
Ian glanced back at the carriage door. Why would a woman be traveling unprotected to Chisholm’s Castle? Whatever the reason, Ian would make certain she did not reach her destination.

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April Holthaus

henderson, USA

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