Bride of Mist (The Warrior Daughters of Rivenloch #3) - Glynnis Campbell Page 0,1

newfound friends in his time of need.

Perhaps if he hadn’t had his hands full, holding the clan together under his brother’s neglect, Dougal might have intervened sooner. But by the time he grew aware of the changes in Gaufrid, it was too late.

The Fortanachs had already sunk their claws deep into Gaufrid’s malleable mind. Toying with his affections. Drinking with him. Whoring with him. Poisoning his soul. Using gushing flattery, free-flowing ale, and carefully chosen whispers, they bent Gaufrid to their will.

Under their influence, Gaufrid gradually replaced his father’s once loyal soldiers with brutes and mercenaries gleaned by the Fortanach brothers from God knew where.

Dougal devoted himself to protecting those harmed by his brother’s excesses and cruelty. The villagers. The servants. The crofters. But since Gaufrid was laird, Dougal had only limited power.

When the Fortanachs’ exorbitant tastes quickly drained the Darragh coffers, Gaufrid—eager to fulfill their demands and prove his own merit and power—filled them again by raising taxes on the surrounding villages.

Gaufrid’s efforts were misguided, of course. Taxing the villagers didn’t buy their respect. It made them hate him more.

What it did buy, however, was an army of bloodthirsty warriors willing to fight for the laird—to the death, if necessary—if it meant their survival.

Which was why, when the warrior’s sword swept with killing force toward Dougal’s ribs, he responded in equal measure. He thrust up his targe with enough power to both knock away the blade and send the man stumbling backward into the dust.

No sooner had one foe fallen than another came to take his place.

And another.

And another.

Dougal defeated them all.

But he felt no thrill of glory as he watched them depart from the field one by one, hanging their heads in disappointment.

He felt grateful that he’d live to fight another day for what was left of his father’s noble legacy.

He also felt the need to get away from the castle for a while. Leave the stench of hate and hopelessness behind. Fill his lungs with fresh sea breeze.

“Campbell,” he called out to the stable lad. “Saddle Urramach, will ye? I’ll stretch his legs today.”

He’d ride out from the sea cliff to the countryside. Check on the crofters. There had been a christening at Kirkoswald this morn. He’d make an appearance on behalf of the laird. Give the new parents a wee gift of coin. Look after the villagers in whom his brother took no interest.

“Congratulations, brother!”

There was Gaufrid now. Drunk again. Already, and not yet noon. He leaned against the gate of the wattle fence that bordered the field, beaming, as if pleased by Dougal’s victory.

Dougal knew better.

Gaufrid’s smile might be indulgent. But his eyes simmered with long-burning, deep-seated, rumor-nourished resentment.

His brother wanted nothing more than to see Dougal soundly defeated. Only when Dougal was felled in shame would Gaufrid finally feel like he’d triumphed. Like he’d earned the lairdship. Like he deserved it.

But they both knew Gaufrid wasn’t fit to be laird. Nor would he ever be.

The brothers might be similar in appearance. Both had their mother’s coal black hair and their father’s keen blue eyes. They were striking enough to turn the lasses’ heads. They were tall and powerful in stature, with wide shoulders and commanding voices that demanded attention and deference.

But in character, Dougal was nothing like his brother. Gaufrid was petty, greedy, foolish, insecure, and utterly lacking in empathy. A weak and wheedling bully.

Nonetheless, he was the chosen head of the clan. He deserved Dougal’s deference, if not his respect.

Dougal acknowledged him with a nod. “M’laird.”

The new maidservant, a timid, young red-haired lass, came up beside Gaufrid, bearing a cup on a tray. When she hesitated, Gaufrid seized her roughly by the arm, shoving her through the gate. “Well, go on. Can’t ye see our champion needs refreshment?”

The lass blushed and stumbled toward Dougal. She slowed as she approached, eyeing his claymore with trepidation.

She needn’t have worried. Dougal was nothing like his brother. He didn’t assuage his own inadequacies by browbeating others. And he would never raise his blade—or his hand—to a lass.

To put her at ease, he laid down his sword and hauled off his helm. Scraping the damp locks of his hair back from his sweaty brow, he managed a disarming smile. “Merraid, isn’t it?”

She smiled in pleased surprise. “Aye.”

There was an awkward moment of distraction as she stared up at him in wonder, almost as if she’d forgotten what she was doing.

“Hand me the cup, lass,” he softly warned, “lest ye want to suffer the laird’s disapproval.”

She blinked. “Och. Aye.”