Trahern MacEgan--his body is honed for fighting, his soul is black and tortured. Women want to tame him, but he has loved once, and now is lost.
Morren O Reilly--she has known pain and shame, but holds her head high, even though she shrinks from a man's touch.
Can Morren be the light to Trahern's darkness, and can she be made whole again by her surrender?
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September 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Surrender to an Irish Warrior by Michelle Willingham
The autumn wind was frigid, cutting through his cloak in a dark warning that he needed to seek shelter. 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 ?ireann, where the ? Reilly tribe dwelled at Glen Omrigh.
His brothers didn't know of his intent to find the raiders. They believed he was travelling 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, ?ron, 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 had grown 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 l?ine 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.'
She didn't answer, but beckoned to him as she walked back into 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. When they reached it 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 racked 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 ? 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 levelled 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 coloured 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 l?ine 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, then falling to her sides. 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 pulled 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 l?ine, 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.'
Morren ? Reilly opened her eyes and screamed.
Not just from the vicious cramping that tore her apart, but because of the man seated beside her, his hand holding hers.
Panic cut off her breath, seizing her with fear at his touch. She wrenched her hand away from him, and thankfully, he let go. The fever still clouded her mind, and she had no memory of what had happened during the past day.
Mary, Mother of God, what was Trahern doing here? Not a trace of softness did she see in his face. Though he was still the tallest man she'd ever seen, his appearance was completely changed. He'd shaved his head and beard, which made his features stark and cold. Stone-grey eyes stared down at her, yet there was emptiness in his gaze, not fury.
Beneath his tunic, tight muscles strained against the sleeves, revealing the massive strength of a warrior. Morren's heartbeat quaked, and she dug her hands into the mattress, wondering if Jilleen had brought him. She saw no sign of her sister.
'The worst is over,' he said. His voice was low, emotionless.
But it wasn't. Not by half. Morren curled her body into a ball, the dull pain sweeping over her. Her rounded stomach was now sunken and flat. From the pile of bloodstained rags nearby, she suspected the babe was gone.
It was her punishment for all that had happened. Hot tears gathered in her eyes. No, she hadn't wanted the child, not a permanent reminder of that awful night. But now that it was gone, she felt emptiness. A sense of loss for the innocent life that had never asked to be born from a moment of such savagery.
I would have loved you, she thought, in spite of everything.
She buried her face into the sheet, suddenly realising that she was naked beneath the covers, except for the linen between her legs.
Humiliation burned her cheeks. 'What have you done?' she demanded. 'I want my clothing.'
'It was covered in blood. I had to remove it, to help you.' His voice was heavy, as though weighted down by stones. 'I'm sorry I could not save your child.'
The words cut through her, and she wept for the loss. A warm hand came down upon her hair as she hid her face from him. Though she supposed he'd meant to comfort her, she couldn't bear anyone touching her.
'Don't.' She shrank back from Trahern, binding the covers tightly to her skin.
He lifted his hands to show he meant no harm. 'I've sent your sister for help.' Studying her, he continued, 'Until she returns, I'll find something for you to wear.'
He rummaged through her belongings, and though Morren wanted to protest, she held her tongue. Another cramp rolled through her, and she couldn't stop the gasp. The room tipped, and she lowered her head again, fighting the dizziness.
'I've seen you before, but I don't remember your name,' he admitted, finding a cream-coloured l?ine within the bundle. He tossed it to her, turning his back while she pulled the gown over her head. 'I am Trahern MacEgan.'
It disappointed Morren to realise that he didn't recognise her at all. But then, his attentions had been focused on Ciara and hardly anyone else.
She knew Trahern well enough. During the months he'd spent living among her tribe, she'd listened to countless stories he'd told. It wasn't often that a bard could captivate an audience, weaving a spell with nothing but words, but Trahern was a master.
'Morren ? Reilly is my name,' she answered at last.
He didn't show any sign that it meant anything to him, and she accepted it. Another dull cramp gripped her, and the pain threatened to sweep her under again.
'Is your husband alive?' he asked, a moment later. He'd phrased the question carefully, as though he already knew the answer.
'I have no husband.' And never would, God willing. Her sister, Jilleen, was the only family she had left. The only family she needed.
Trahern's gaze met hers, but he offered no judgement. Neither did she offer an explanation. 'When did you eat last?'
'I don't remember.' Food was the very last thing she'd thought of when the pains had come upon her. The idea of eating anything made her stomach wrench. 'I'm not hungry.'
'It might help.'
'No.' She buried her face on the ragged cloak her sister had used as a sheet. 'Just leave me. My sister will return.'
He dragged a stool nearby and sat beside the bed. 'I can see that you're hurting,' he said. 'Tell me what I can do for you.'
'Nothing.' She bit her lip, wishing he would go, so she could release the tight control she held over the pain.
Trahern crossed his arms over his chest. 'Your sister will return with the healer soon.'
'No, she won't.' Morren couldn't stop the gasp when an other wave of pain struck her. 'Our mother was the healer. She died last year.'
Trahern leaned in, frustration lined upon his face. 'Then she'll go to the abbey and bring someone back.'
'I don't know if anyone will come,' she answered honestly. The monks at St Michael's would tend anyone brought to their abbey, but she doubted if any of the elderly brethren could make the journey here.
Trahern's grey eyes were nearly black, his mouth taut with anger. Morren had never seen him this furious, and she tried to retreat as far away from him as possible. She closed her eyes, focusing on enduring one breath at a time.
'Don't blame Jilleen,' Morren insisted. 'She might still bring back someone to help.'