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Son of the Morning (Chapter 14)

WHEN NIALL RODE IN FROM PATROL, SIM MET HIM WITH A worried expression. "Artair andTearlach haven't returned from hunting," he reported.

Niall looked at the darkening sky. The short winter day was fading fast, and the lowering gray clouds promised more snow. The wind whipped at his hair, blowing it across his face, and impatiently he tossed it back as he jumped from the horse.

"BringCinnteach ," he ordered. The gelding was as steady as his name, and had the stamina of two horses.

"Done." Sim nodded to a stable lad approaching with the big bay. "I've had the other lads make ready, should ye want them also."

"Only you andIver ," Niall said. The two men were Creag Dhu's best archers, save himself. Perhaps he was foolhardy to take only two with him, but he was always mindful of leaving the castle well protected. Winter had cooled the Hay's raging blood feud with Creag Dhu; over a month had passed without attack. Still,Artair andTearlach were both accomplished hunters, and could read the weather well; if naught was amiss, they would have returned by now.

ArtairandTearlach had gone out with the dawn, intent on afiadh, a deer, whose tracks they had cut in the snow twice before, but the wily beast had escaped each time.Tearlach had slowed with age but was still the castle's best tracker.Artair had a gift for silence,Tearlach one for patience; they worked well together. Niall suspectedArtair liked to hunt in winter because the wild, empty,snowdusted mountains somehow reminded him of a cathedral, vaulted and holy. Creag Dhu had a chapel but no priest, for holy men sought safer duty than being confessor to wild renegades, and the chapel had long stood empty. Niall preferred no reminder of the Church or God, butArtair deeply felt the absence and sought his sanctuary in nature. He had thought it safe enough to replenish the castle's larder.

Niall rode out again five minutes later, having taken only enough time to wolf down a bit of bread and meat, and drink a cup of hot ale. The cold snapped at his face, but he : was warm enough in wool and fur.

They rode in a slow circle about the castle, picking upArtair's andTearlach's tracks where they went into the wood. The tracks were plain enough in the snow, and were easily followed.

Niall's head lifted, his nostrils flaring and his mouth grim as he surveyed the stark black and white wood. The snow deadened sound, so that they were surrounded by a silence unbroken except by the noise of their own passing, and that was slight enough. He sensed trouble, and there was a prickling between his shoulder blades.

"Ware," he said softly, and Sim andIver moved apart from him, spreading out so that an ambush would be less likely to trap all three of them, and also that they might better use the cover available to them.

The day's patrolling had not revealed the tracks of either man orHighland pony coming onto Creag Dhu land, but if the Hay were determined enough, and sly enough, he could have sent in his men a day or more before the snow, and had them wait for their best opportunity. Given a small cave, Highlanders could easily survive the cold and snow in relative comfort. Hiding their mounts would be more difficult, and not even the Hay was stupid enough to send out his men afoot. They would also need running water.

"If any Hays areaboot , they'll be hard by the bum." He kept his voice low, but pitched it so both Sim andIver could hear. They both nodded, their eyes moving restlessly, not pausing on any detail for more than a split second.

But Niall didn't sense any presence in the wood, despite his feeling of danger. He knew well when someone watched him, for he'd felt it often enough these past months. At times the eyes on him belonged to a Hay; other times, he knew it wasshe. the woman, the spirit. He didn't know why she watched or what she wanted, butofttimes he could feel her gaze on him as he fought, feel her anxiety at his danger and her relief when he emerged victorious, and unscathed. Be damned if that wasn't less unsettling than sensing her near while he was abed with, and most like atop, a warm, willing woman. He was growing more and more irritable with her; if he ever got his hands on the wench, he'd be tempted to throttle her.

She watched him at the most inconvenient times, but now he rode through the darkening wood alone. Snowflakes swirled downward, brushing his face with their icy kiss. He could barely make out the tracks in the snow.

Cinnteach'sears pricked forward, and Niall held up a warning hand, slowing their approach. Naught moved before them, but the wind brought a scent, faint and unmistakable. Sim's mount shifted restlessly, tossing his head.

Niall dismounted, his right hand closing around the hilt of his sword. His acute senses felt the sudden brush of a gaze upon him, as definite as a touch, and he whirled to the side just as his ears caught the singing whisper of an arrow and sharp metal bit into his left shoulder with solid force.

He went down on his knee behind cover of a large tree. Looking around, he saw both Sim andIver also behind cover, their faces grim as they watched him. He signaled that he was all right and motioned for them to change positions, moving out and forward to catch the intruders between them.

His shoulder burned like seven hells, but he had taken the precaution of wearing a silkundertunic , something he insisted all his men do. An arrow couldn't pierce silk, something all Templars knew. The most damage from an arrow didn't occur on entry, but when it was removed. If one was wearing silk, the fabric went into the wound and twisted around the arrowhead, preventing debris from entering the wound and causing infection, and also allowing the arrow to be safely removed by covering the barbs.

He reached inside his shirt, grasped the silk around the arrow, and jerked. The weapon popped free of his flesh, though not without effort. He ground his teeth against the pain; silk might lessen the severity of an arrow wound, but he reflected that it still wasn't pleasant. Fresh blood streamed down his shoulder, wetting his shirt.

Pain had always made him angry. His eyes narrowed until they were nothing more thanmidnight slits as he slid to the ground and crawled forward behind a fallen log. Every move jarred his shoulder and he became even angrier. The snow was falling faster, almost obliterating what little light remained. Both Sim andIver were in position now, waiting for a target, but nothing moved. Niall dug his fingers under the snow, searching for a cone or rock. A pebble would suffice, for a subtle noise would be more effective than a great crashing. And there; a cone, mushy with wet and rot. Without rising from behind the log he tossed the cone in the direction from whence the arrow had come and it landed with a soft scraping noise, as if a careless shoulder had brushed against a snow-laden branch and caused it to spill its burden.

An archer rose swiftly from behind a rock, bow drawn, hunter's eyes locked on the target area. That singing whisper came again, andIver's arrow pierced the archer's neck. His nerveless fingers released the bow tension and the arrow sank into the dirt before him. Eyes widened, teetering on tiptoe, he clawed at his throat. A choked, gurgling sound issued from his mouth, followed by a rush of blood, and he collapsed in the snow.

From the other side Sim released an arrow. He had no definite target so he sent it flying into a thick bush capable of providing concealment. His guess was correct, because a cry of pain split the cold air.

–Niall took advantage of the distraction to move yet again, sliding behind another tree, much closer than he had been when caught by the arrow. His white teeth gleamed as he tilted back his head and loosed a bloodcurdling roar. He erupted from his cover like a lion springing for its prey. Four men sprang from concealment, startled by the bloody apparition that was suddenly upon them, huge sword flashing. One man managed to get his own sword up and metal rang against metal, but he went down under Niall's greater weight.

Sim andIver each loosed one more arrow, then sprang forward screaming their own cries. Niall thrust his dagger up under his man's ribs and slashed sideways until he hit bone. The man arched and convulsed and Niall swung away from him, dropping to one knee under the rushing attack of a second foe and jabbing upward with the bloody dagger. The sharp metal sliced into the soft belly and Niall held the dagger steady while the man's momentum hurled him forward, eviscerating himself with his own motion.

Niall surged to his feet, but Sim andIver had taken down their own men and only the three of them remained standing, panting softly, wisps of steam rising from their heads.

"Yer shoulder?"Iver asked, nodding at the wound. "'Tis' minor enough." That was true, but it burned like hell for all that. Niall strode furiously to reclaim his horse. He was certain now that he'd not findArtair and Tearlach alive. The Hay clansmen had planned well, skulking close and hiding until they could ambush those fewer in number than they, the whoreson cowards.

He found his men a minute later.Artair lay on his back, his blue eyes open and empty as he stared sightlessly upward. Niall dismounted and knelt beside his old friend, touching his face, lifting his hand. He was already cold, his limbs stiffening. The arrow had entered his heart.

He had not suffered, Niall thought, drawingArtair's plaid up to cover his face. His expression was almost peaceful, as if he'd at last quit a life in which he had no place.

'Adieu,monami ,"he whispered. French was the language in which he had been schooled as a Templar, and it was in that tongue he bid good-bye to his last friend from that time. They were all gone now, all the Knights who had had taken wives, had children; some still held to their vows. But they were Knights no longer; only he remained in service to the Order. It had been so for fourteen years, and yet so long as Artair had been with him he had felt the kinship. Now there was no one left at Creag Dhu who had even a glimmer of understanding.

"Tearlachlives," Sim said, pressing his tough, blunt fingers deep into the wounded man's neck. Surveying the amount of blood on the snowy ground, he shook his shaggy head. "He's near bled out, though. He'll no last 'til mom."

Niall stood and liftedArtair's body over his shoulder. "Perhaps," he said. "But if he dies, 'twill be among friends. "

He sat alone in his chamber that night, unable to sleep, drinking raw spirits that burned down his throat. He was drunk, but the raw ale had done nothing to lift his mood. His shoulder throbbed; it had been rinsed with the same ale he drank, and bound with a poultice to draw out any putrefaction. He was hot with fever, but he didn't fear it; the fever had come soon after each wound he'd ever received, and he had noted that he seemed to heal faster than those whose fevers came on later. The wound had been clean, the ale fierce; in two days, he'd scarce feel a twinge in the shoulder.

The heat from the fireplace washed his bare shoulders and back. His plaid was draped about his hips, but except for that he was naked.

He stared across the chamber at nothing, his expression grim. Damn the Hays; if he had to wipe out the entire clan, rid theHighlands of their stinking presence, he would have vengeance forArtair . The time would come soon enough, when winter lifted its icy hand from the mountains.

But for now he was drunk, feverish, and alone with his thoughts. There was no one watching, no one near, when he needed to feel her with him.

He closed his eyes, aching inside with the loneliness. For all his life he had been forced to hide parts of himself from the world. Always his kinship with the Bruce had been hidden as he had taken wives, had children; some still held to their vows. But they were Knights no longer; only he remained in service to the Order. It had been so for fourteen years, and yet so long asArtair had been with him he had felt the kinship. Now there was no one left at Creag Dhu who had even a glimmer of understanding.

"Tearlachlives," Sim said, pressing his tough, blunt fingers deep into the wounded man's neck. Surveying the amount of blood on the snowy ground, he shook his shaggy head. "He's near bled out, though. He'll no last 'til mom."

Niall stood and liftedArtair's body over his shoulder. "Perhaps," he said. "But if he dies, 'twill be among friends. "

He sat alone in his chamber that night, unable to sleep, drinking raw spirits that burned down his throat. He was drunk, but the raw ale had done nothing to lift his mood. His shoulder throbbed; it had been rinsed with the same ale he drank, and bound with a poultice to draw out any putrefaction. He was hot with fever, but he didn't fear it; the fever had come soon after each wound he'd ever received, and he had noted that he seemed to heal faster than those whose fevers came on later. The wound had been clean, the ale fierce; in two days, he'd scarce feel a twinge in the shoulder.

The heat from the fireplace washed his bare shoulders and back. His plaid was draped about his hips, but except for that he was naked.

He stared across the chamber at nothing, his expression grim. Damn the Hays; if he had to wipe out the entire clan, rid theHighlands of their stinking presence, he would have vengeance forArtair . The time would come soon enough, when winter lifted its icy hand from the mountains.

But for now he was drunk, feverish, and alone with his thoughts. There was no one watching, no one near, when he needed to feel her with him.

He closed his eyes, aching inside with the loneliness. For all his life he had been forced to hide parts of himself from the world. Always his kinship with the Bruce had been hidden, even before the Bruce was king. Later, with the Knights, he had been forced to deny his own nature, though he had gone to sleep every night with his arms and loins aching with need. Now he could give free rein to his lusts, but he must hold secret his years as a Knight, though those eight years had done much to shape him into the man he was now. Even from Robert, who knew all those things, he must conceal his true role as Guardian, and the cursed vow that ruled his life.

Only withher was there nothing to hide. Whoever and whatever she was, he sensed that she knew him as no one else had ever done, knew his body bone-deep and his mind even when he slept. When he took her in his arms, when she came to him in the dark silence of the night, she knew all of the man he was and still she clung to him, offering her body and herself.

Niall inhaled through his teeth as lust hit him hard. He wanted her, but not in a dream. He wanted her real and warm under his hands, her sweet scent fresh in his nostrils as he took her. He could almost feel her, his longing was so sharp. His hands curled into fists, trying to capture the sensation of her silky skin under his palms.

The fever and ale and longing combined, and suddenly she was there, her hands sliding lightly over his bare shoulders. He felt her concern as she touched the pad covering his wound, but her concern wasn't what he wanted. Fiercely he caught her to him, and held her on his lap while he stripped away the small scraps of clothing that were all she wore. He couldn't quite see her face, but she was here and that was all that mattered. He put his hand on her cool belly, warming her with his touch, feeling the muscles beneath contract as she drew in her breath. Her small nipples beaded, as he had known they would. She responded to his slightest touch; he knew that if he slid his fingers between her legs to the delicate opening hidden there, he would find it wet, ready for him.

Instead he smoothed his hand up to her breasts, cupping them, rubbing his thumb over her nipples, then bending his dark head to take the tightened buds in his mouth and gently suck. She shivered in his arms, trying to press closer to him. Such lovely, plump little things her breasts were, small and delightfully round, so delicate and sensitive he knew it would pain her if he handled them roughly as some women liked. She was more finely made than any woman he had ever known, both fragile and strong, her skin like translucent silk.

He couldn't wait any longer. He needed her too much. Swiftly he turned her, laying her back on the bench. He shoved his plaid aside and straddled the bench, spreading her thighs open and moving between them. He watched as he entered her, his thick shaft too large, too brutish, for the soft flesh that stretched under his pressure, but she took him, her back arching, her cries those of pleasure. He gritted his teeth as the tightness of her sheath enveloped him and he crouched over her, thrusting long and slow and deep, almost delirious with fever and drink and the sensations boiling through him, but needing her so much he couldn't stop. Her arms curled around his neck and he felt her passion matching his, her need as great as his, her acceptance of everything he was; and he knew he wasn't alone anymore"

But he was.

His eyes opened and the fantasy shattered. He sat there breathing hard as he silently cursed her. Damn her for taunting him like this, tantalizing him with a whisper of her presence, then disappearing when he needed her most. His aloneness crashed down on him and he hunched his shoulders against the burden. His head dropped down on his chest and he closed his eyes, trying to regain her presence but it was gone as if she had never been there at all.

"So where are ye now, lass?" he murmured.

Grace bolted out of bed, grabbing for the pistol. Someone had spoken right beside her, the voice almost in her ear. She stood with her back against the wall and the pistol locked in a two-handed grip, swinging from point to point in search of a target, but nothing was there. The room was empty, dark, lit only by the streetlights filtering through the drawn curtains. She sagged back, gasping. A dream. Only a dream, and for once not of Niall – or was it? The voice that had jerked her awake had been deep, burred, and she'd heard the wordlass.

Yes. Niall. She closed her eyes, breathing deep and slow in an effort to calm her racing heart. After a few moments she was more relaxed, but far from drowsy, and she mentally replayed that voice in her ear.

Deep, whiskey-rough, burred. Not the smooth voice of a practiced seducer, but that of a man used to command: completely self-assured, determined. And yet he'd asked, very quietly, "So where are ye now, lass?" as if he truly needed her.

Grace's eyes opened again, widening. She had been dreaming, after all; she remembered a snippet now, of Black Niall sitting quietly before a fire. But something was different, as if it wasn't her dream at all, something outside herself that had drawn her in.

More and more of the dream unfolded itself. She saw him alone, half naked, with only his plaid draped loosely about his hips. He had evidently been injured, for a rough bandage was wrapped about his left shoulder, the linen pale against his olive-toned skin. Fear licked at her and she wanted to go to him, assure herself he was all right.

A metal cup was in his hand. He was drinking, staring at nothing, his expression somber. His loneliness, his absolutealoneness made her ache inside. Then he closed his eyes and abruptly she was there, in his arms, lying naked on his lap while he fondled and sucked gently at her breasts.

Grace trembled at the memory that wasn't quite a memory, was more than a memory. Somehow she was lying on the bench and he was crouched over her, his face tense as he thrust again and again. The pleasure rose beating inside her, and she reached up to twine her arms around his strong neck, almost weeping with joy.

And then, nothing. He was gone, the dream ended, with only his murmured, "So where are ye now, lass?" echoing in her mind, as if she should have been there, tending his wound, offering him the comfort women have always offered warriors.

She felt a wrench of regret that she hadn't been there. The image of him was sharp and clear in her mind. He sat with his back to the fire and the golden light had glistened on his bare shoulders, broad and powerful with muscle, and a halo limned his long black hair. Equally black hair spread across his chest, and a thin, silky line of it ran down his washboard stomach to the small, taut circle of his navel. His long legs were thick with muscle, the most powerful legs she had ever seen on a human, the delineation of his musculature built on the rock-solid strength produced by a lifetime of swordplay and battle, of controlling a huge stallion with the strength in his thighs, wearing more than a hundred pounds of armor and actually fighting in it. His was the body of a warrior, honed into a weapon, a tool.

But he was still just a man, she thought with aching tenderness. He bled, he ached, he sat alone and got drunk and grumpily wondered why some woman wasn't dancing attendance on him. It was her imagination that made her dream he'd been speaking only to her.

If he had been… if she were actually with him… She would get him to lie down in bed, make him more comfortable. He was probably a bit feverish; a cold cloth on his brow would make him feel better. She didn't doubt, however, that he would be a terrible patient. Instead of resting, he would insist she lie down with him, and soon his hands would be roaming under her shirt.

"Damnit!" Grace moaned, pressing her hands to hereyes.Her breath was coming soft and fast, and she felt warm, liquid. Her nipples were tight and erect, pushing against the thin fabric of her T-shirt. It was bad enough that she sometimes had erotic dreams about him, but it was a far , worse betrayal of Ford that she daydreamed about Black Niall, too.

The pistol was still in her hand, cold against her temple. Carefully she replaced it and thought about getting back into bed, but she was wide awake. She glanced at the clock. Why, it wasn't eveneleven o'clock yet; she'd been asleep, less than an hour. Long enough, however, for Niall to take over her subconscious. For eight months she had been dead inside, and she wanted to remain that way. There hadn't been any laughter, any sunshine, any appreciation of a deep blue sky or the drama of a storm. It was safer that way, easier; if she hadn't been numb, she couldn't have survived. She didn't want an sign of returning life because it would only weaken her. In eight months she hadn't yet been able to weep, even tears held at bay by the bleak ice surrounding her. Niall was a crack in that wall of ice; one day it would collapse, and so would she.

She couldn't afford the weakness he represented. She had to hurry with those damn Gaelic papers, get them finished and out of her mind so Black Niall would cease to plague her. If she could get some measure of revenge against Parrish, perhaps her mind would ease and she could begin to heal, and her subconscious would then no longer need to cling to the dream image.

Well, sleep was definitely out of the question. Groaning, knowing she needed to rest because tomorrow she and Kris planned to break into the Foundation's computer system; instead she turned on a light. Her mind was racing; until she calmed, she might as well use the time to work.

She didn't bother getting out the laptop, just took her notepad and the remaining Gaelic papers and curled up in the room's one armchair, a cracked vinyl job she had made more comfortable by throwing a sheet over it. She could still hear the creaking and crackling of the vinyl, but at least now the chair didn't stick to her.

She picked up a page and groaned. More mathematical formulas, though, thank God, they were in Latin. Her brows rose in surprise. This was the first time two languages had been mixed in one section. The handwriting was different, too, heavier, plainer. She scribbled the formulas on her notepad, translating them into English. "For twenty years, the proportion of water to weight shall be … " On and on it went, giving the precise fractions for, supposedly, targeting the year to which one wanted to travel. Also included was the voltage of energy required, or at least she thought that was what it was; they hadn't had any knowledge of electricity other than watching lightning bolts, so what exactly had they been measuring? Energy, yes, but what kind?

Still, she copied it all down, yawning as she did so. It was like copying down a complicated recipe, though not half as interesting. If anything was going to put her to sleep, this would do it.

She began reading aloud to herself, droning the words.

'For DCLXXV years' – let's see,D is five hundred years, the C is after it so that adds another hundred,L is fifty, the twoX's after it add ten years each, and then aV; which is five. Six hundred and seventy-five years. Getting pretty precise there, aren't you,' she muttered to the long-ago writer.

Absently, she subtracted six hundred seventy-five from 1997, just to see what year a current time traveler would end up in, using this exact formula: 1322. "A wonderful year," she said, yawning. "I remember it well." What a coincidence; 1322 would have been in Black Niall's time.

She turned the page, ready for more math. She blinked at the words, wondering if she was sleepier than she had thought, or perhaps had somehow gotten a sheet that didn't belong mixed up with the Gaelic papers. She read the words again, and chills ran over her entire body. "No," she said softly. "It's impossible."

But there it was, in Gaelic, and in the same heavy hand that had written the mathematical formulas:

"Require ye proof? In the Year of Our Lord 1945, the Guardian slew the German beast, and so came Grace to Creag Dhu. – NiallMacRobert , y. 1322."

She became aware she was panting, and a shudder wracked her. The page swam before her eyes, the words blurring. The termGerman hadn't existed in the thirteen hundreds. How could someone who lived in the fourteenth century have knowledge of something that happened in the twentieth? It was impossible – unless the formula truly worked.

Unless they had known how to travel through time.

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