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Son of the Morning (Chapter 11)

THE NAME GRACE TOOK FROM THE CEMETERY IN MINNEAPOLIS was Louisa Patricia Croley. This time she didn't get a birth certificate. Instead, armed with Harmony's pearls of illegal wisdom, by that afternoon she had a social security number, an address, and a driver's license. The last two were fake. The social security number was real, because it had belonged to the real Louisa Patricia Croley. Getting the number had been a snap, and she didn't need an actual card, just the number.

The next morning she was the owner of a pickup truck, a beige, rusted-out Dodge that nevertheless shifted gears smoothly and did not emit either any strange noises or telltale puffs of smoke. By paying cash, she got the owner to knock four hundred off his asking price. With the title and bill of sale in her possession, she then stood in line to get the title switched to her name – or rather, to LouisaCroley's name.

Grace was grimly satisfied as she walked back out to the truck. She had wheels now. She could leave any time she wished, and she didn't have to buy a ticket or worry about disguising herself in case the ticket agent remembered her if anyone came around asking questions. The truck meant liberation.

She rented a cheap room close to downtown, and after a little research applied for a job with the cleaning service that cleaned some of the lavish homes in Wayzata. There was no better pipeline of information than a cleaning service, because no one paid any attention to the cleaners. She knew that Parrish employed a full-time housekeeper, as did some of the other home owners on the lake, but enough of them used an outside service to make the business very lucrative. Not enough of the lucre made it down to the hands of those who did the cleaning, however, so the turnover was fairly high. She was hired immediately.

That night, in her drab little room, she lay in the lumpy bed and thought drowsily of the papers she had just finished translating. In 1321, a man named Morvan of Hay had tried to kill Black Niall, but lost his own head. His father, a clan chieftain whose lands lay to the east, had then launched the entire clan into open warfare with the renegades of Creag Dhu. Niall had been captured during one battle and locked in the Hays' dungeon, but escaped by unknown means that same night.

Niall. Grace kept her thoughts focused on him, afraid to let them wander. Being inMinneapolis was more difficult than she'd thought-not because of the danger, but because this was the city where she had lived with Ford, the city where her husband and brother were buried. She wanted desperately to go to their graves, but knew she didn't dare. Not only would it be an extremely risky move on her part, but she didn't think she could bear it. Seeing their graves would destroy her, shred the paper-thin wall she had built around her emotions. How long had it been now? Two months? Yes, two months and three days, almost to the hour. Not long enough. Not nearly long enough.

She would think of Niall instead. Concentrating on him was what kept her sane.

He was loving her.

On the periphery of her consciousness, Grace knew she was dreaming, but that awareness wasn't enough to stop the images. Always before when she had dreamed of Niall she had been an observer, but that night she was a participant.

The dream was vague, shifting, but she knew she was in bed with him. The bed was huge, piled high with furs; she would have felt lost and insignificant in such a bed, but withhim there she was only vaguely aware of the vast expanse on which they lay. He mounted her, and the intense heat of his body startled her. Surprised, she realized they were both naked, his bare skin scorching hers. He was heavy, and the pressure of his weight almost crushed her, but it felt so wonderful to have a man on top of her again that she held him close. She had missed that so much, the weight of a man on her, the strength of a man's arms around her, his smell in her nostrils, his taste on her mouth.

She ran her hands over his back, feeling the layers of hard muscle under his taut skin. His mane of black hair was damp with sweat, his body wassheened with it. His scent was raw and hot and wild, that of a man aroused beyond control. She had caused this wildness in him and she loved it, she reveled in it, she wanted everything he could give her.

Then he entered her, and in her dream she cried out from the unbearable pleasure of it. He was so big she felt stretched, so hot she felt seared. Her body gathered and focused and tightened, and she began climaxing.

The spasms awoke her and at first she lay there awash in voluptuous sensation, breathing deeply and feeling the tremors subside. Niall must have just left her, she thought sleepily, because she could still feel in her loins the lingering throb caused by his thrusts. She wanted to curl in his arms, and she reached out her hand and touched

Nothing. Grace came sharply awake, her breath suddenly harsh in her lungs. She sat up, staring wildly around the dark, empty room. Horror filled her at what she had done, and she clenched her teeth against a howl of rage, of despair, of violent rejection.

No.

She hated herself, hated her stupid hungry body for letting a figment of her imagination tempt it to pleasure. How dare she dream of Niall, how dare she let the dream Niall invade her body, give her pleasure? He wasn't Ford. Only Ford had ever touched her, made love to her, explored with her the intense sexuality of her nature. She had lain naked only with Ford, loved only Ford, yet only two months after his death she dreamed of another man, adead man, and found sexual pleasure in the dream.

She huddled on the bed, keening softly to herself. She had betrayed Ford. It didn't matter that she had done so only in imagination, in her subconscious. Betrayal was betrayal. It should have been Ford she'd been dreaming about, Ford who had died protecting her.

But if her dreams were of Ford… she would have gone insane by now. His death, Bryant's death, was a great internal wound she didn't dare touch because it was still bleeding, still too painful to bear. She had focused on studying the documents about Black Niall because that was the only way she could function, and her subconscious had thrown her a curve ball by continuing to focus on him during her sleep.

Damn her body, damn her own nature. When she was awake it was as if her sensuality had died with Ford; she felt no desire, no frustration, no attraction. But when she slept, her body remembered, and yearned. She had loved making love, loved everything about it – the smells, the sounds, the delicious rub of his body against hers, the way he had stroked her while she arched and purred, the sweet, startling moment of entry when their bodies linked. When Ford was off on a dig and she hadn't been able to join him, she had been tormented by sexual frustration until he returned. He had always walked into the house grinning, because he knew that within five minutes they would be locked in their bedroom.

Grace locked her arms around her knees and stared at nothing. Perhaps, now that she had calmed down, she could understand how she had come to dream about Niall, but she didn't want it to happen again. She wouldn't think about the papers when she was in bed. Instead she would think about Parrish. That would be safe, because she didn't find him remotely attractive; she could see the evil beneath the beauty of his form. She would try to devise some means of revenge. She didn't just want him dead, she wanted justice, she wanted the world to know the truth about him. She wanted it known he had killed two wonderful men, and why. But if justice eluded her, she would settle for vengeance.

Finally she lay back down, half afraid to sleep again but knowing she had to try; she started work at seven in the morning, and cleaning houses was hard work. She needed to sleep, she needed to remember to eat, she needed… oh, God, she needed Ford, and Bryant, she needed everything to be the way it was before.

Instead she lay alone in a narrow, lumpy bed, and watched the night pass while she tried to think of some way to use the papers against Parrish.

***

Niall jerked himself out of sleep, cursing as he carefully rolled onto his back and pushed the bedcovers away from his straining, jutting penis, unable to tolerate even the slightest touch lest he spill his seed in the bed. He hadn't done such a thing since he was an untried lad of thirteen, not even during his eight years of sexual deprivation as a Knight.

He had dreamed of a woman, dreamed he was plowing deep into her belly. He couldn't fathom why he should be dreaming of such, when only a few hours earlier he had enjoyed a lusty encounter with Jean, a widow who had sought the safety of living within castle walls and traded her skills in the kitchen for a pallet in Creag Dhu.

He hadn't dreamed of Jean, or of any other woman he knew. But the woman in his dreams had been familiar, somehow, though in his dream they had coupled in darkness and he hadn't been able to see her face. She was small in his arms, as most women were, but there had also been a certain frailty, a slightness that made him want to take care with her. She hadn't wanted careful tenderness, however; she had been hot and wanton, clinging to him, her hunger as fierce as his. Her hips had lifted to meet him and as soon as he had entered her, groaning at the perfect, silky tightness that gloved him, her spasms of pleasure had begun. The intensity of her response to him had made him hum hotter and faster than he ever had before, and he'd been on the verge of joining her in climax when he abruptly woke to an empty bed, empty arms, and furious frustration.

He judged the hour to be near dawn, too near to seek sleep again. Scowling, he groped for flint and lit a candle, then strode to the fireplace to stir the banked embers and add a few small sticks to catch fire. The chill air washed around his naked body, but he didn't feel cold; he was hot, almost steaming from the force of his arousal. His penis was still thick and erect, aching from the loss of that tight internal clasp. He could feel her on his flesh as vividly as if he had indeed just left her body.

She had smelled… sweet. The memory was elusive, fleeting, but his thin nostrils flared as he instinctively tried to catch it again. Clean and sweet, not the overpowering sweetness of a flowery perfume but something light, tantalizing, and underlying it had been the exciting muskiness that signaled her arousal.

Ah, it had been a great dream, despite the frustrating aftermath. He seldom laughed, for life did not much amuse him, but his lips curved upward as he stared down at his rebellious manly parts. The dream woman had aroused him more than any real woman ever had, and he had greatly enjoyed many women. If he should ever truly lay his hands on one such as his dream woman, he would no doubt kill himself rutting on her. Even now, when he remembered how it had felt to enter her, the heat and wetness and tight, perfect fit

The throb in his loins intensified, and his smile grew to a grin, one that none of his people had ever seen, for it was free and lighthearted, and he hadn't been that since the age of sixteen. He grinned at his own foolishness, and at remembered pleasure, real or not. He tormented himself by letting his thoughts linger on the dream, yet it was too arousing to forget.

Small tongues of flame were licking at the sticks now, so he added a larger log, and pulled his shirt on over his head. After wrapping his plaid about his hips and belting it, then draping the excess around his shoulders, he put on his thick –wool stockings and shoved his feet into the soft leather boots that he preferred over the short, roughbrogaich worn by his men. He never went unarmed, even in his own castle, so next he slipped a slender dagger into his boot, a larger one into his belt, then buckled on his sword. He had just finished when a hard knock sounded on his door.

His dark brows snapped together. It wasn't yet dawn; a knock at this hour could mean only trouble. "Come," he barked.

The door opened andEiligWishart , captain of the night guards, poked his ugly head inside the chamber. He looked relieved at seeing Niall already dressed.

"Raiders," he said briefly, in Scots. He was a broken man from Clan Keith, a man separated from his clan by will or by expulsion, and the Lowlanders more normally spoke Scots than Gaelic.Eilig always did so when he was excited.

"Where?""From the east. 'Twill like be the Hays." Niall grunted as he strode from the chamber. "Rouse the men," he ordered. He agreed withEilig ; over the years Huwe of Hay had come to bitterly hate the renegades of Creag Dhu, for they controlled a large area he had previously regarded as his to plunder. He had made bleating protests to the Bruce, for such a large gathering of broken men from alloverScotland could only mean trouble. Robert, during one of hismidnight visits, had warned Niall to be wary of his neighbor to the east. The warning had been unnecessary. Niall was wary of everyone.

He himself saw to having the horses readied, and invaded the kitchens to have provisions gathered for himself and the men. Big loaves of coarse bread were already baking in the ovens for the evening meal, and a huge pot of porridge was beginning to bubble over the fire.

He tore off a hunk of stale bread from yesterday's loaf, and washed it down with ale. Between bites, he gave orders. Jean and the others scurried around, gathering bags of oats and wrapping bread, cheese, and smoked fish in cloth. The women's eyes were large and frightened, but they regarded him with confidence, trusting him to see to the matter as he'd done for the past fourteen years.

When he went down into the inner bailer he found it teeming with terrified crofters who had been allowed into the castle for protection. Torches burned brightly on the turmoil, as the horses were brought around and his men descended to take their bags of food and make the many small preparations for going to war. The wounded lay where they had fallen, and others scurried around them, sometimes stepping over them. One sturdy old woman was making an effort to gather the wounded into one area so they could be cared for. Men cursed and snarled, and some women wept inconsolably for loved ones they had lost, husbands and children, and perhaps for what they had endured at the hands of the raiders. Some women were silent, closed in on themselves, their tom clothing telling the tale that their closed lips refused to speak. Children huddled close to their mothers, or stood alone and wailed.

It was war. Niall had seen its image many times, been hardened to it. That did not mean he would ignore such an attack on what was his. He strode over to the old woman who was trying to bring order to chaos, recognizing in her the hallmarks of a leader. He put his hand on he. plump arm and pulled her aside. "How many hours have passed?" he asked curtly. "How many were they?"

She gaped up at the big man who towered over her, his black mane swirling about his broad shoulders, his eyes as cold and black as the gates of hell. She knew immediately who he was. "It canna' ha' been more than an hour or two. 'Twas a fair party, thirty or more."

Thirty. That was a large raiding party, for raiding was something best accomplished by stealth. In fourteen years he had never left Creag Dhu guarded by fewer than half his men-at-arms, but if he pursued and engaged that many men he would need more than his usual force.

Such a large raiding party was a challenge, an affront, that couldn't be ignored. Huwe of Hay must know that Niall would retaliate immediately, so it followed that he would have prepared for such an event. Perhaps he had even planned it deliberately, to draw Niall and most of his men away from the castle.

Niall beckoned toArtair , who left his horse with a lad and obeyed the summons immediately. The two men walked a little away from the noise and chaos.Artair was the only other former Templar left at Creag Dhu, a solitary and devout man who had never lost faith even when the Grand Master had gone to his fiery death seven years before.Artair was forty-eight and gray-haired, but his shoulders were still straight and, like Niall, he trained every day with the men. He'd forgotten none of the battle strategies they had learned in the Order.

"I suspect this to be a ruse to draw most of the men away from the castle," Niall said quietly. His mouth was a grim, thin line, his eyes narrowed and cold. "The Hay will likely attack as soon as he thinks us well away. I canna' think he's close enough to watch, nor do I think the clumsy oaf that canny. I will take fifteen with me; the others will remain here, under your command. Be watchful."

Artairnodded, but his gaze was worried. "Only fifteen? I heard the woman say thirty-"

"Aye, but we've had the training of these lads, have we not? Two to one are not fair odds, for we've still the advantage."

Artairsmiled wryly. The Hay clansmen would be fighting against unknowing,unsworn Templars, for Niall, with his help, had trained them well. Most Scots roared into battle with little thought other than to slash or stab whoever was in front of them, but theclanless men at Creag Dhu attacked with a discipline that would have done a Roman legion proud. They had been taught strategy and technique, had it hammered into them by the most fearsome warrior in Christendom, if they but knew it. They knew only that since he had appeared in theHighlands none had defeated Black Niall, and they were proud to serve under him. All their clan loyalty, their sense of kinship and belonging, had been transferred to him, and they would unhesitatingly fight to the death for him.

Satisfied that Creag Dhu was well defended, Niall chose fifteen of his men and led them out of the gates, then rode hard into the dawn. He pushed both man and beast hard to overtake the raiders, for he suspected their intent was to lead him as far away from Creag Dhu as possible. His face was grim and hard as he rode. The Hay clansmen had made a fatal mistake by committing their thieving, raping, and murdering on land Niall considered his own. He had taken Creag Dhu, fortified it, remade it for his purposes; the Treasure was safe there, and no one was going to take it from him.

Huwe was a fool, but a dangerous one. He was a blustering bull of a man, quick to take offense and too stubborn to admit when he was outmatched. Niall was a soldier by both nature and training, and despised the heedlessness that cost unnecessary clan lives. Though he usually tried not to cause such an uproar in theHighlands that Robert would be called upon to intervene, for he knew it would mean trouble for his brother when he refused to oust the renegades and broken men from Creag Dhu, Niall's patience was at an end. By threatening Creag Dhu, the Hay now threatened the Treasure – and he would die because of his foolishness.

A good horse could make the difference between victory and defeat, and Niall had made a point over the years of providing the best mounts possible for his men. By stopping only to water the sturdy beasts and allow them a moment's rest, he overtook the raiders at mid-morning.

The raiders were in the middle of a glen, laden with the goods they had stolen and driving a straggling herd of stolen kind before them. The morning sun glittered on the mist that still hung overhead like a veil. There was no place for them to take shelter, and when Niall and his men first thundered out of the wood toward them the raiders milled about in a moment of panicked confusion.

The old granny had guessed aright, Niall saw; the enemy numbered more than forty, making the odds close to three to one, but almost half the forty were on foot. His teeth bared in a savage grin. Seeing the relatively small number of pursuers, the raiders would no doubt turn to meet them-a move they would have leisure to regret for only a short time.

As he had expected, there was a flurry of shouts and the company gathered, then charged across the glen, shouting and waving a variety of weapons, claymores and axes and hammers, even a scythe.

"Hold," Niall said. "Let them come to us." His men ranged on either side of him, spreading out so that they weren't clumped together and thus couldn't be flanked. They held, the horses stamping restlessly and tossing their heads, while the screaming attackers poured across the misty, sun-dappled glen.

But a good three hundred yards had separated the two groups, and three hundred yards is a long way for a weary man to charge, especially when he has been about the tiring business of raiding all night and has not slept, and has been traveling hard to evade pursuers. Those on foot soon slowed, and some stopped altogether. Those who pushed stubbornly on were no longer shouting, no longer borne onward by battle fever.

So the host of horsemen who charged ahead of the stragglers barely outnumbered Niall and his men. Niall's gaze targeted a bullish young man who rode in front, his wild tangle of sandy hair flying behind him. That would be Morvan, the Hay's ill-tempered, brutish elder son, and the spit of his father.Morvan's small, mean eyes were likewise locked on Niall.

Niall raised his sword. The claymore was, for most men, a two-handed weapon, but his strength and size gave him the power to swing the six-foot blade one-handed, freeing his left hand for yet another blade, or aLochaber axe. Seizing the reins with his teeth, he took up an axe. His well-trained horse quivered beneath him, muscles bunching. When Morvan and his men were a mere thirty yards away, Niall and his men charged.

The impact was swift and staggering. Once he had fought with shield and armor, a hundred pounds of mail weighing him down, but now Niall fought free and wild and savage, his eyes burning with a fierce light as he blocked a sword with his axe and then went in under the man's defenses with his own sword, spitting him. He always fought silently, without the yells and grunts of other men, instinctively sensing the next attack while he was still dealing with the present one.

Before his sword was free he turned, swinging the axe up to block another blow. Metal clanged as a sword struck the axe head, and the force of it jarred his arm. One powerful leg pressed and his horse turned, bringing him around to face this new challenge. Morvan of Hay pressed forward, using all his considerable weight in an effort to unhorse Niall.

Niall shifted his horse back, away fromMorvan's weight. With a curse the younger man straightened, his yellowed teeth bared as he drew back the claymore for another attack."Diolain!" Morvan hissed.

Niall didn't even blink at being called a bastard. He simply swung his own sword to parry, then buried his axe in the oars head, cleaving it almost in two. With a jerk he freed his weapon and turned for another adversary, but there was none. His men had worked as efficiently as he, and the Hay clansmen who had been mounted were no longer astride their horses, but lay sprawled in the indignity of death, limbs exposed, their blood turning the sweet earth to mud. The familiar stench of blood and waste marked their death.

Niall's black gaze swept over his men. Two were wounded, one seriously. "Clennan," he said sharply, drawing the attention of the man who had taken a wound in the thigh. "Care forLeod ." Then he and his thirteen remaining men charged to meet the Hay clansmen who were on foot.

It was a rout, for a man on horseback had an enormous advantage over one afoot. The animals themselves were weapons, their steel-shod hooves and massive weight simply crushing those who could not move out of the way. Niall vaulted from his horse's back, the blood lust singing through him as he swung sword and axe, twisting. parrying, thrusting. He was a dark blade of death, unutterably graceful as he moved in his lethal dance. Five men fell before him, one beheaded by a massive sweep of the claymore, and Niall did not even feel the shock in his sword arm as the blade sliced through bone.

The carnage lasted two minutes, no more. Then quiet fell across the glen, the clash of swords replaced by an occasional moan. Swiftly Niall took stock, not expecting his men to have escaped unscathed. YoungOdar was dead, lying sprawled beneath the body of a Hay clansman. His clear blue eyes stared sightlessly upward. Sim had taken a sword cut in the side and was cursing luridly as he tried to stanch the flow of blood. Niall judged him well enough to ride.

Goraidh, however, was unconscious, his forehead bloody. All suffered from small cuts and bruises, himself included, but those wounds were as nothing. With two wounded in the first attack, he had ten healthy men remaining, and two would have to stay behind to help with the wounded and herding the cattle back to Creag Dhu.

"Muir and Crannog, remain with Sim andClennan to help with the wounded, and the cattle." The two he had named did not look pleased at having to remain behind, but knew it was necessary.

They could not ride as hard as they had before, for the horses were tired. Niall kept them to a steady pace. his warrior's heart beating fierce and wild in his chest as he rode to another fight. The wind lifted his long hair, drying the sweat of battle. His thighs were clamped to the powerful animal beneath him, heat meeting heat, flesh against flesh. The thick wool plaid kilted about his waist gave him a freedom thatbraies and hose and hot sheepskin undergarment had denied him, and he exulted in his unfettered wildness.

He had easily cast aside the physical accoutrements of the Knights, let his hair grow long, shaved his beard, discarded the hated sheepskin. Though he had become one of them, there had always been a place in his soul that yearned forScotland , for the wildness and freedom, the mountains and mists, the sheer lustiness of youth. The life of warfare offered by the Knights had appealed to him, and as he had grown older he had learned what they did and accepted the burden, the sheer faith, but stillScotland had lived within him.

He was home, and though he reveled in his physical freedom he was bound now by a far heavier burden, one that ruled his life far more rigidly than before. Why had Valcour chosen him, an unwilling though faithful Knight? Had Valcour suspected how easily and eagerly he would rejoin his former land and life, giving no hint that he'd once been a Templar and thereby better protecting the Treasure? Had Valcour guessed the secret relief with which Niall had accepted his freedom from all his vows, save one? But that one was the greatest of all, and the most bitter, for it served to protect those who had destroyed the Order.

Why could notArtair have been chosen? Of necessity he had shaved his beard and grown his hair, for to do otherwise would have been courting death, but other than that he held still to the vows he had taken, to chastity and service.Artair never doubted, never cursed God for what had happened, never turned from the faith to which he had sworn. If he had hated, at first, he had long since found peace and released his hatred, finding solace in prayer and war.Artair was a good soldier, a good companion.

He would not have been a good Guardian. Niall had not forgiven either the Church or God. He hated, he doubted, he cursed himself and Valcour and his own vow, but in the end he always came back to the same truth: he was the Guardian. Valcour had chosen well.

To protect the Treasure, Niall rode to face Huwe of Hay, well aware that a blood feud had started that day and determined that most of the blood would leak from Hay clansmen. Huwe wanted war? Very well, then, there would be war.

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