His eyes darted to the right and left. He was alone and in the open. There was nothing for it. “Damn it to hell,” he murmured again.
MacColla rolled his shoulders, praying his head concealed the hilt of his weapon at his back. Reaching his hands wide, he forced a smile and said, “Caught.”
“Indeed.” A soldier of middle years reached him first. “But” – he stretched his arm out to halt his men – “good glory, could it be?” The soldier erupted into laughter. “Men, we've captured ourselves none other than Alexander MacDonald. Though you might know him better by his Gaelic name. MacColla.”
“Caught,” MacColla said once more. He gave a little smile.
“But not captured.”
He reached behind his head and unsheathed his sword in an instant.
Horses reeled around him, and MacColla raged, slashing and spinning, and slashing some more. His steel found legs, torsos, a neck, and some good deal of horseflesh, until four horsemen were whittled to one.
He heard the click of a cocking pistol behind him and swallowed a curse.
“If you'd be so kind as to hand over your blade.” It was the lead soldier, and he had the barrel of his gun lodged between MacColla's ribs.
Leannan, he thought. Her face came to him. Could this be the death she'd warned of? He'd not let it be. The soldier seemed to be offering quarter.
What was he supposed to do? Perhaps in another lifetime,
MacColla might have fought him. And been shot.
He hesitated. Fight, or surrender and live? He imagined
Leannan's gray eyes, intent, urging him to survive.
Grimacing, he proffered his sword.
“Though you did put up a grand fight,” the man added, taking MacColla's claymore. “'Twill be a tale for my children's children to tell. How their Grandfather O'Grady offered the great MacColla quarter.”
“I'll avail myself of your prisoner, O'Grady.”
MacColla turned his head to match this new voice to the man. A fifth had joined them, and though he looked an ordinary soldier, of ordinary height and with ordinary features, MacColla saw the greedy glint of evil in his eyes.
“Major Purdon,” O'Grady said in greeting. Enthusiasm brightened his voice. “We've captured the famed MacColla. I've already offered the man quarter, and will be – ”
“MacColla gets no quarter.” Purdon's face was flat, and his eyes didn't sway from their prisoner. A slight twitch at the man's lips betrayed his deadly intent.
“He's my prisoner.” O'Grady said dismissively. He removed the gun barrel from MacColla's back and turning, began to lead him to his horse. “It would do me a dishonor to rescind quarter once granted.”
MacColla had to credit the man's principles.
Now if he could only use this new distraction to disarm him, he'd have a chance at escape. He was eyeing the pistolheld loosely in O'Grady's hand when he heard a sharp click.
“You'd be wise to halt now, O'Grady.” There was another click as the newcomer pulled his musket to full cock. “Turn around.”
MacColla stiffened, his mind racing. He needed to fight. Another gun was the only thing of use against a musket at this range. His hand fisted and loosened, as he contemplated O'Grady's pistol, just within his reach.
Purdon spoke again. “I'd see this MacDonald's face, watch his eyes as I watched the life bleed from his brother's.”
A cold, dead chill washed over MacColla. The man who killed Gillespie. Who was this bastard? MacColla began to turn, anxious now for the fight, but O'Grady's pistol was back, its barrel pressed at his ribs.
He glanced down at his captor's white -knuckled grip. The soldier was nervous, and nerves killed.
“That's right,” Purdon said. “I killed your brother. What was the pup's name? Gillespie? He, at least, had the courage to face me.”
Damn the pistol. MacColla flexed again, ready to pull away.
“Easy now,” O'Grady said, jamming the gun harder than ever into his side. “He'll not shoot a man in the back. I offered quarter, and quarter you shall have.”
“Fret not, O'Grady,” Purdon said to their backs. “I'll give you credit for the capture. But the kill shall be mine.”
The gunshot rang sharp across the valley. Slammed hard into MacColla's back.
He lurched forward onto his knees.
Shot. Every last facet of his body jolted to awareness. He tried to stand back up, but couldn't move.
He looked down at his belly, but saw nothing. Reaching around, MacColla fumbled his hand slowly along his waist, his side. His back.
And then his fingers found it. A ragged hole in his flesh.
Shot in the back.
Awareness shrieked into pain. Agony seized him, radiated through his veins, blood pounding it in a steady pulse from the great, wet gash in his back.
His vision wavered black, then cleared.
Shot. The horror of it swept him like a great wave. Dead.
He brought his hand back and it dripped crimson with his own blood. He was going to die. Horror turned his flesh cold. The skin, already, of a dead man.
Leannan. She'd known. But still, he'd gotten himself killed.
My leannan. Left alone.
He'd gotten himself killed . And a woman on her own? He'd killed her too, in the bargain.
He couldn't die. He had to protect her. Once again,
MacColla struggled to move, but couldn't.
He sensed commotion. So slow and languorous around him, like a distant buzzing of bees. The two men moved behind him, around him, shouting. The sounds came hollow to his ears, as if from behind a pane of glass.
He tried to move his legs. To rise. He must kill these men before they found her.
Something drew his eyes. MacColla looked up, squinted against the sun. Leannan.
He heard a sharp, brittle noise, the sound of anguish, and realized it had escaped from his own throat. Oh God, no.
Haley knelt at the top of the ridge. That tremendous musket was strapped to her back.
No. His lungs squeezed. His breath grew short, the pain like lightning crackling through his veins. Go, leannan. Go back.
Damn this body. He needed to get up. Needed to protect her. He struggled, but still he couldn't move.
He knelt on lifeless legs, propped up like a book standing open on a table. Half dead already.
She was on the hilltop, shouting something to him.
Go. She was in danger, and he couldn't help her. The horror of it choked him. Go now.
He tried to pull a deep breath in. Flexed his thigh muscles, willing them to move. The stab of pain sent shards of white light skittering across his vision. The agony almost unbearable now.
They'd shoot her, and this pain would be what awaited her.
It was a nightmare from which he couldn't wake. He was dying, and he couldn't save her.
He needed to warn her, tried to gesture. But he felt buried in quicksand, frozen, sinking slowly down.
He flashed to their time on the beach. The moonlight had been silver along the wet sand. Silver on her breasts, along her thighs, on the sheen of moisture that had dampened her brow.
He felt the whole of his life summed in that single vision of her. That flash of Haley, her joy, her fire. Never again would he see her. Never again touch her in the moonlight. Even the memory, gone forever.
Clouds scudded slow over the sun, throwing her into shadow. He saw her more clearly then.
Her beautiful face. Screaming wordlessly.
Watching him die.
His throat closed on his anguish. Oh God, my leannan.
He coughed. Agony burst hot in his belly. Searing, blinding, unutterable pain.
His world grew gray. Stars exploded before him.
He fought to keep his eyes on her. His last sight, of her.
Oh leannan, my love.
Horror faded to regret. Such regret. His veins ached, steeped in regret.
And MacColla receded into black, the world gone from him forever.
Even from a great distance, Haley had been able to see, hear, and smell MacColla's battle. Musket smoke nestled in the bosom of the valley, so thick it seemed a physical thing, like steel gray cotton from which men would violently burst, only to dive back in for more. Screams echoed, hollow and faraway, as did a cacophony of explosions and the distant crashing of steel on steel.
Even the most swaybacked of ponies had been marshalled for the fight, and she'd had to sneak out, secretly following MacColla on foot. Haley raced toward that gray cloud, toward him. Though she could no longer see it, she knew where it was, could follow its stench, see its leaden pall hanging low over the hill. She knew she'd find it – find him -just over the next rise.
But for the moment, she was alone. The valley stretched empty before her, unfathomably surreal. Everyone else engaged in the fighting.
In battles of old, villagers would set up for the day to watch the bloody proceedings from a distance, and Haley now saw how that was possible. The battle was contained, holding the complete attention of every last soldier.
Where are you?
She crested the gentle rise and stopped short. Haley had her overlong musket slung on her back and it struck her shoulder blades as she dropped to her knees.
The hill was littered with the bodies of dead and bloodied men, the smell of slaughter sweet and heavy in the air. Her stomach seized, and she slapped a hand to her mouth. Bent as her body brutally retched out every last fluid in her belly.
Shit. She wiped her mouth, and stood again, as quickly as she was able. No time…
She scanned the hill, looking for a fallen man, tall, and in dingy olive black. It sickened her, and she breathed sharply through her nose to try to keep the nausea at bay. She searched, but she didn't see MacColla among the dead, and relief shuddered through her.
Many of the bodies wore tawny coats or flaunted orange or tawny strips of cloth. Parliamenters.
Haley spat, wiped her mouth, and spat again. Looking far in the distance, she could see the ragged path cut by MacColla and his men.
He won. His Irish Confederates had routed the Parliamentary army, chased them.