Legend has it that one dark, stormy night many centuries ago, a small wooden craft got into difficulties off the West Highland coast, and broke its hull on the vicious outcrop of rocks called the Beathach, or the Beast. All aboard that storm-tossed night were lost save for one, a babe in arms, only child of the mythical Highland warrior known as The Fearless One. Still tucked up in the woven reed basket in which he had been sleeping, the child was miraculously washed ashore on the remote, uninhabited Isle of Kentarra.
Here, he was found by a wolf pack who, instead of tearing out his throat, suckled him and reared him as one of their own, initiating him into their ways, imbuing him with their qualities. He survived and grew to be a man. A man with the spirit of the wolf residing inside him. He eventually learned how to master his inner beast. And he learned how – and when – to unleash it’s terrifying power.
From this extraordinary individual evolved a race of fierce warriors, the Faol, with their chilling clan motto: Faiceallach! Tha mise an seo! Beware! For I am come!
Clan Wolf are feared and revered in equal measure throughout Scotland. Famed for their consummate skills in battle and reputed to be irresistible to mortal women, the Faol live in uneasy symbiosis with their Highland neighbours. Their home is the remote island kingdom of Kentarra, where their unique culture is fiercely protected. The Faol rarely walk among humans, except on those occasions when a laird commissions them to deploy their prowess in battle to aid his cause. Such requests are often rejected, for the Faol are no mere mercenaries. Their code dictates that they offer their services only to just causes, and utilise the proceeds for the good of the pack.
Though the price demanded is high, those privileged few granted their services can have no doubt of victory. But woe betide the Highland laird who fails to honour his side of the bargain, for the Faol will take the thing most precious to him.
Whatever, or whoever that is.
Scottish Highlands, 1700
The rain turned to smirr as Iona McKinley set out from the castle with her basket, intending to gather the last of the wild brambles. Taking the familiar path to the woods, she pulled her arisaidh, the thick plaid shawl she wore pinned to her gown, more tightly around her. The air seemed unnaturally still, not even the sound of birdsong disturbing the silence. Her skin prickled, as if someone had walked over her grave. Or the way it does when a shadow falls across the moon.
She cast a nervous glance over her shoulder, but there was no-one there. The cotters were all out in the fields for the annual tattie howking. Her father, the laird, was supervising them, determined as usual to make sure that no-one slacked, or tried to sneak one potato more than their strict entitlement into their own basket. Laird McKinley liked to think himself a stern but fair patriarch. The villagers who were his serfs utilised other, rather stronger words to describe him. Iona, his only child, who had lived alone with him in the draughty castle since her mother’s death, knew that the sad truth was that her father cared for nothing but his own comfort, his own coffers and his position as laird. He was a man who valued loyalty over love.
“Which is just as well,” Iona said to herself rebelliously, recalling the abrupt way he had announced she was to be wed to Kenneth McIver, a neighbouring laird at least thirty years her senior. “Wheesht girl, it is a grand match,” she muttered, in a fair imitation of her sire, “Kenneth is not yet so decrepit that he’ll have any problem planting a bairn on ye, so he assures me.” The very idea of it made her shudder. She had refused outright, though she knew that duty dictated she eventually accede.
A twig snapped with a sharp retort. Iona jumped and cast another anxious glance around. Still nothing, but the feeling persisted that someone was watching her. Or something.
“Stop being such a big bairn!” she chided herself, “you’re letting your imagination run away with you.” She was the laird’s daughter, on McKinley land. No one would dare harm her here.
But just as she reached the fork in the woods, there it was, standing in the middle of the path, gazing intently at her. Fierce grey eyes, long silky black hair, a vicious snarling mouth. A huge wolf, the biggest she’d ever seen in her life. As it crouched down on its massive haunches, readying itself to spring, Iona drew in her breath to scream. The sound had barely formed in her throat when the beast pounced.
She seemed to be moving. The air had a distinct feral tang to it. She was on the back of something large, her arms around its neck. Fur brushed her cheek. Not a horse then. The animal, whatever it was, moved with a powerful loping stride. Her heart was pounding in time to the beast’s sinuous, rhythmic movement. She could see the steam of its breath bloom in the cold air. It was exhilarating, the sheer speed at which they were travelling, effortlessly leaping the criss-cross of streams swollen with the melting of the first snow, which had fallen unseasonably early.
Gnarled branches of ancient trees snatched at her hair like the twisted, arthritic hands of an old fey wife. There were no pine forests near McKinley lands. She must be dreaming. Iona closed her eyes and surrendered to the liberating sensation, imagining herself fleeing from the life her father had decreed for her.
When she came to, she was sitting on the ground. Though the rain had stopped, she was wet through, her long copper-coloured hair hanging down her back in damp tendrils. “Cold,” she murmured, wrapping her arms around herself, not sure that she really was awake.
Iona jumped. The voice, it’s timbre deep and throaty, it’s tone imperious, came from behind her. A soft fur cloak was wrapped around her. Her back arched against the luxurious dry warmth of it. At her feet, there was sand. She was on a beach. McKinley lands were land-locked, but she could definitely smell the sea. She screwed her eyes tight shut, then opened them again. Awake. She was not dreaming now.
Completely disoriented, she stumbled to her feet. A hand steadied her. A muscular arm, a studded leather band at the wrist. Bare legs, no hose nor even shoes. She tried to twist round, but his grip held her firm. “Who are you? Let me go!” Rough chest hair on her cheek. A musky scent. Bittersweet. “I was attacked by a wolf. What happened?”
She felt, rather than heard his laugh vibrating through his broad chest. “I subdued him.”
Such a strange turn of phrase. The accent too was unusual, not local. Iona wrenched herself free.
“Where am I?” She looked around in astonishment at the beach, the sea, the forest. “How did I get here?”
“That matters less than where you are going.”
She saw him clearly for the first time, then. Tall. Powerful, but sinewy. Intimidating rather than frightening. Dangerous. She could see each well-defined muscle in the broad sweep of his shoulders, his arms, his chest, the dip down into his belly. He wore nothing save a rough filleadh beg held with a thick leather belt at his waist. Around his neck was an amulet on a leather thong, an ornate piece of gold inlaid with what looked like emeralds His skin was tanned all over. His strong jaw was bluish with bristle. His hair fell to his shoulders, pushed back from his high brow. There was a sprinkling of dark hair on his chest and forearms too. His handsome face was all hard planes and sharp lines, like the rugged granite landscape of the Highlands. Grey, his eyes were. There was something hypnotic about his piercing, impassive gaze as it caught and held hers. Something dark and deeply unsettling too. Unknowable.
It was painful to breathe. She was afraid to move, yet afraid not to. Transfixed, just as she had been when she encountered the wolf. Such a magnificent beast. Such a magnificent man. An aura redolent of barely-contained power hung like a haar around him. Intoxicating. With enormous difficulty, she dragged her eyes away from his. “Who are you?” she demanded. “I am Laird McKinley’s daughter, my father will…”
“I know exactly who you are.” Struan Tolmach eyed the maid with mild interest. She was a slight thing, typical of her kind, but much more attractive than she had a right to be, from what he remembered of her father. Presumably that copper hair and those big green eyes were inherited from her mother. Though that look, all defiance and belligerent pride, was definitely her sire’s.
“I demand that you take me home. This instant!”
“You’re in no position to make demands. You belong to us now,” Struan said dismissively, taking her roughly by the shoulder and pointing her in the direction of the sea.
The maid struggled, digging her feet deep into the shingle for purchase, but he held her easily. He was not used to human females displaying resistance – quite the opposite, though he had never once been tempted. Seductive as some of those Highland women had been, Struan preferred to hunt much closer to home. Whatever it was about his kind which made him so irresistible to mortal females, he had no interest in taking advantage of it. He sated his desires within his own tribe.
“Let me go!” She was panting with the effort to get free. “If you agree to take me back now, I’ll explain that you saved me from danger, from the wolf.”
Her scent was intensely female, but exotic, more delicate than a Faol woman’s. Under his plaid, Struan’s manhood stirred most inconveniently into life. “Safe from the wolf perhaps, but not necessarily out of danger.”
She stilled. “What do you mean?”
Struan turned her around in his arms, pulling her into the lee of his body. She felt good there. Too good. His erection hardened. He tried to close his mind to the rousing scent of her, but could not. What was wrong with him? He tilted her face up. Green eyes, determined to show no fear. He couldn’t help but admire her courage. That surprised him too. “Iona…”
She struggled free. “How do you know my name?”
“Your father told me.”
“How do you come to know him?”
“He engaged my services some months ago.”
“In what capacity?”
“To help him defeat the MacEwans. Which I duly did.”
It was true, Iona recalled, the McKinleys had recently finally re-taken the border land illegally wrested from them by the MacEwans decades ago. Her father had been so overjoyed he had even thrown a celebratory ceilidh. “My father paid you to help him?”
“We agreed a fee. Twice now, your father has been reminded, and twice he has failed to honour his debt. He knew the price for defaulting.”
Iona frowned. “What price?”
He hadn’t told her, his own kin. It didn’t surprise Struan, but it disgusted him. “The terms were clear,” he said grimly. “He was to surrender that which is most precious to him.”
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