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Michelle Willingham

Surrender to an Irish Warrior

Surrender to an Irish Warrior

Series: The MacEgan Brothers - Book #6


Click here to read Chapter 1

Ireland, 1180

The autumn wind was frigid, cutting through his cloak in a dark warning that he needed to seek shelter and soon. 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. Trahern had left his home and family, returning to the southwest of Éireann, where the Ó Reilly clan dwelled at Glen Omrigh. 

His brothers didn’t know of his intent to find the raiders. They believed he was traveling 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 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, the 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 Áron had sent word that the cashel had been attacked by Lochlannach 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 descended over the horizon, Trahern set up a fire and unpacked the tent. The flames licked at the wood, flaring bright orange against the night sky. Tomorrow, he would reach the cashel and begin tracking his enemy. 

He 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 léine 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 toward 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 glanced back at 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.”

“How badly?”

She didn’t answer, but pointed toward the trees once more. “She needs help.” 

Without waiting for him to agree, the girl started walking away from him, returning to the forest. Trahern eyed his horse, then the wooded hillside. Though it was faster to ride, the trees grew too close together 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, 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 wracked with shivers, clutching the bedcovers to her chest. Her legs jerked with pain, and when he touched her forehead, she was burning up 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 the girl, 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 Ó 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 leveled 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 colored 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 sister-in-law 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, the healer had 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 although the fever was attacking her body, she fought it back.

She wore a ragged léine 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. Her eyes remained closed, and he couldn’t tell if his touch was causing her pain. He stopped, waiting to see if she would regain consciousness. 

When she didn’t awaken, he continued onward, pulling 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 léine, 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 Ó 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. 

Trahern MacEgan. During the months he’d spent living among her clan, 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. 

Panic cut off her breath, seizing her with fear. 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 he 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 had completely changed in the past few months. He’d shaved his head and beard, which made his features stark and cold. Stone gray 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 who 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 realizing 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-colored léine 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 realize that he didn’t recognize her at all. But then, his attentions had been focused on Ciara and hardly anyone else.

“Morren Ó 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 judgment. “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. “I sent your sister to find the healer. She will return with her soon.”

“No, she won’t.” Morren couldn’t stop the gasp when another wave of pain struck her. “Our mother was the healer. She died last winter.”

Trahern leaned in, frustration lined upon his face. “Then she will go to the abbey and bring someone back.”

“I don’t think anyone will come,” Morren 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 gray 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.”

But even as she spoke the words, she suspected they were untrue. Her sister had gone, and there was no way of knowing if she would return. Ever since the night of the attack, Jilleen had not been the same. 

Neither had she. 

Morren gripped her arms tightly, not wanting to think of it again. Let it go, she told herself. The sacrifice was necessary.

“Are there many survivors left at Glen Omrigh?” Trahern asked. 

Morren shook her head. “I don’t know. We left, and I don’t know where the others fled. Possibly to other clans.”

“How many of the Lochlannach attacked that night?”

Morren didn’t speak, the dark fear washing over her. She clenched her teeth together, fighting to keep herself together.

But Trahern wouldn’t let it go. “How many, Morren? Did you see them?”

Staring directly into his face, she said, “I know . . . exactly how many men there were.”

She could tell from the look on his face when he understood her meaning. Trahern expelled a dark curse, his gaze crossing over her broken body.

She said nothing more. There was no need.

When his hand reached out to touch hers, she pulled it back. And this time, when the darkness lured her in, she surrendered.

***

She’d started bleeding again. 

It bothered Trahern, having to care for Morren in such an intimate manner. She was a stranger to him, and he knew nothing about how to fight the demons of sickness. Though he did his best to help her, he wondered if it would be enough.

God help her, she was still burning with fever. Trahern gave her small sips of water and did his best to tend her. But he did not reach for her hand or touch her in any way. It wouldn’t bring her comfort anyhow.

His rage against the Lochlannach raiders heightened. They had done this to Morren, and worse, he feared they’d also violated Ciara. He renewed his vow of vengeance against the men. They would suffer for what they’d done. If what Morren said was true, that the clan had scattered, then she might be his best hope of learning more about these raiders. 

The hours stretched onward, and Trahern kept vigil over Morren. In the middle of the night, she started shaking. Terror lined her face, and he wished he had some means of taking away her pain. But he knew nothing of plants or medicines. And he didn’t want to leave her alone, not when she’d lost so much blood.

Helplessness cloaked him, and he wondered if Ciara had suffered like this or whether she’d died instantly. Had anyone taken care of his betrothed during her last moments? 

He stared down at his hands, wishing there was something he could do. There was only one thing he had left to offer—his stories. Though he’d been a bard for as long as he could remember, not a single tale had he uttered since Ciara’s death. He hadn’t been able to find the words any more. It was as if the stories had dried up inside him. Bringing laughter and entertainment to others seemed wrong, not when the woman he’d loved was gone and could no longer hear the legends. 

But now, while Morren was fighting for her life, he saw it as a way of bringing comfort without a physical touch. 

The story of Dagda and Eithne flowed from inside him, the way he’d told it to others, year after year. Morren’s trembling grew calmer when he used his voice to soothe her.

“Dagda was a god who invoked goodness among the earth and in the fields,” Trahern murmured. “But one day, he saw a beautiful woman whom he desired as no other before. Her name was Eithne.”

Trahern wrung out a cold cloth and set it upon Morren’s forehead, careful not to touch her skin. He told the story, using every nuance of his voice to capture her attention.

He spoke of the god who had seduced Eithne and given her a son. Trahern continued until his voice was nearly hoarse, stopping just before dawn.

Morren shuddered, struggling as the fever drew her deeper. She thrashed on the small pallet, her face tight with pain. 

“Don’t,” he ordered her. “You’re not going to give up now.”

“I’ve no wish to die,” she whispered, leaning forward when he offered her another sip of water. Her skin was flushed hot, her body limp and weakened. “I have to look after my sister.”

She lifted her eyes to his. They were a deep blue, the color of the sea. Within them, he saw a rigid strength to match his own. 

“You’re going to live,” he insisted.

Her expression was glazed with fever, but she pleaded with him, “Trahern, when my sister returns, don’t tell her about the child.”

Whatever he’d expected her to say, it wasn’t that. His mouth tightened into a line. “How could she not already know?”

“I . . . hid it from her. Jilleen knows what happened to me on the night of the raid. She doesn’t need to know about the child; she’s only thirteen.”

“She’s old enough. And it will fall to her, to take care of you after this.” He couldn’t stay with her indefinitely.

“Please,” she whispered. “Say nothing.”

His hand clenched into a fist. “I can make no such promise.”

Summary:

An Irish warrior who craves vengeance . . .
After losing the woman he loved, Trahern MacEgan will stop at nothing to avenge her death. His body is honed for battle, his soul tortured—and he has sworn never to love again.

A woman who has endured suffering . . .
Morren Ó Reilly sacrificed herself for her sister’s sake, but she holds her head high even as she recoils from a man’s touch. When Trahern saves her life, their tentative friendship begins to heal the loneliness inside.

A passionate redemption
Can Morren be the light to Trahern’s darkness and be made whole again by her surrender?
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