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Heart of Ashes by Quinn, Paula, Publishing, Dragonblade (1)


Prologue

Bannockburn, Scotland

The Year of Our Lord 1314

Cainnech MacPherson, second Highland commander to King Robert the Bruce, smashed his shield into an English soldier’s chest, knocking him to the ground. Cainnech dropped his shield, put his boot on the soldier’s belly, and lifted his spear in both hands.

He looked down into the eyes of his enemy. His stomach should have twisted at what he saw. But it didn’t. He’d seen it thousands of times before. Killing another man was a nasty task that took its toll on the soul. One either learned to live with it or hesitate and die.

He brought down his pike into the soldier’s chest.

A warm breeze passed over him. It reeked of blood and piss and purpose. Comforted by the familiarity of it, he yanked his spear free of bone and chainmail and freed his axe from his belt. He swung it upward while he turned on another soldier coming up behind him. His axe caught the soldier under the chin, splashing blood across Cain’s face and giving deeper color to the glacial blue of his eyes. His gaze raked over the battle going on around him. The English forces were dwindling. Their cavalry was trying to make their way toward the hill.

He left his axe where it had landed and bent to take the dead soldier’s sword from the man’s fingers. He used it to hack several more men out of his way until he had a clear line of vision to Father Timothy waiting in the mist.

He followed the priest’s gaze across the ferocious melee from whence he’d just come, toward the woods where Thomas Randolph, the king’s nephew, brought his schiltron, or shield wall, out of the trees.

Cain took a moment to appreciate their perfect formation and to enjoy the surprise on the faces of the English as the Scots hemmed them in.

He took it all in, glad to be a part of it. He’d waited long enough. It was time to win Scotland’s independence…and his own.

He picked up a shield and pounded his sword against it, then shouted for his men to make formation.

They fell in smoothly, killing everyone in their way, and formed an impenetrable wall, weapons pointed at the English.

Cain took his place in the front line, eager to fight, to show the English the monsters they’d unleashed.

Pushing his shoulder against his shield, he prepared to give the order to move when he saw Father Timothy shoving his way to the front.

“What the hell are ye doin’ here?” Cain demanded.

“I am here to help,” the small, bald-headed priest replied calmly against his shield.

It was the same thing he’d said sixteen years ago when he’d found a seven-year-old Cain huddled against the tree from which he was tied.

“I dinna need yer help, old man. Now get back to the—”

“Ye should give the order to move now, Commander,” the priest offered in a softer tone. “The men are waitin’.”

Cain scowled, knowing the priest was correct. This wasn’t the time to argue. His men were ready and awaiting his order. “Move!” he shouted. “On them! On the English! Ye!” He turned to Father Timothy. “Go back! Dinna let me see ye here again.”

He didn’t wait to see if the priest obeyed him or not. Every man in his regiment obeyed him. They trusted him with their lives—and somehow he’d always managed to keep them alive.

They charged as one living, moving entity, four hundred strong, decimating Edward’s infantry.

Cain yanked his sword free from over two dozen men before he found a moment to turn to the one who would likely get him killed.

“What d’ye mean by disobeyin’ me, Father? I told ye to go back!”

“I obey the good Lord. Not ye, Cainnech,” the priest answered, unruffled by a glare that was said to stop the hearts of the English.

“Oh?” Cain asked, tightlipped. “And the good Lord wants ye to fight? To kill?”

Father Timothy’s brown eyes were large as he smiled, exposing old, yellowing, but straight teeth. “Some are called to carry out His judgment.”

Hell! Again, this wasn’t the time to argue with the old fool! Cain respected King Robert and he’d give his life in battle for any one of his men. But he’d cared deeply for only one person in the last sixteen years. He wasn’t about to let Father Timothy put his life into the hands of something or someone Cain could not see.

Without wasting another moment, Cain went to Father Timothy, grasped him by the back of his robes, and pulled him into the fray. He made certain nothing came too close to the priest while he swung his sword and hacked away at the English with one hand.

Covered in the blood of his enemies and dragging a sword-wielding priest behind him, he set his course toward the hill and joined forces with Thomas Randolph’s men to drive the English cavalry into the marshes. The Bruce’s regiment took the English from the south, where the English king retreated.

“Aye, run!” Father Timothy shouted. “If ye know what’s best fer ye, ye will never come back!”

Cain glanced at him and then continued on toward a clearing in which to collapse without falling on a body—or into the marshes.

They’d won. They’d beaten the English before, but nothing like today. Cain hoped England’s King Edward was watching when King Robert brought down his battle axe on Sir Henry de Bohun’s helmeted head, striking him dead.

Cain smiled, and not for the first time that day. Robert fought like a savage and Cain was proud to call him teacher.

But hell, he was exhausted. He just wanted to rest for a wee bit.

“God has given us victory!” the priest rejoiced.

Cain shook his head and held up his axe.

“What d’ye think ’twill be like tomorrow?” Father Timothy came up beside him and asked excitedly.

“I’ll let ye know when ’tis over.”

“Come on now, Cainnech.” The priest joined him sitting in the grass.

Father Timothy never called him Cain. He claimed the weight of such a name created its own beast. Cain disagreed. Being raised in the English army, by the men who’d killed his family, had created it.

“This is it. We’re close to independence. I want to be a part of the victory.”

“Ye are already a part of it,” Cain assured him. “Ye advise the king. Who else d’ye know who can say such a thing?”

“Ye,” the priest told him. “Ye advise him, as does the king’s brother, his nephew, the—”

“All right,” Cain held up his hand. “Never mind any of it. I have a few moments to rest and ye’re interruptin’. Let me put this to ye bluntly, Father. Ye willna be joinin’ me, or any of the men on the field tomorrow. I will tie ye to a tree if I must. I willna have ye fightin’. If anythin’ were to…I consider ye my…”

“Son,” the priest said softly, taking pity on Cain’s stumbling tongue. “Tomorrow is goin’ to be an historic day. God has shown me.”

“Ye see?” Cain yawned and closed his eyes. “Historic days usually involve many dyin’.”

“We will not die, Cainnech. I must help ye find her first.”

Cain opened his eyes and looked up at his friend’s filthy face. “What are ye talkin’ aboot?” He leaned up on his tired elbows. “Her who?”

“God has not revealed her name but we must find her.”

Cain scowled at him. “Why?”

Father Timothy shrugged. “Somethin’ to do with love, I suppose.”

For a moment, Cain thought his friend was trying to be humorous. But when the priest remained sober, Cain blew out a short chuckle and shook his head. Love? Never. He wasn’t meant to love. He was born to fight, to kill. He was brought up on the battlefield, unperturbed by the blood of Englishmen drying on his skin. From a young age, he’d watched the blood of loyal Scotsmen pouring out into the dark grass. He’d wanted to fight with them, for them. It fueled the only passion left in him. To kill.

“Are ye and yer God mad?” He lay back in the grass and closed his eyes. “What place is there in the ashes fer love?”

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