The short, oval-bladed dagger quivered in the wooden target. It protruded from the right shoulder of the figure outlined in charcoal on the plank’s surface.
“A fine hit, English.”
Though Kirk MacLeod’s words were spoken with moderate admiration, Niall’s lips compressed at the moniker. It seemed that no matter how long Niall trained within King Robert the Bruce’s elite force of warriors, he would still be an Englishman first and foremost in these men’s eyes.
“Ye’ve likely caused yer opponent to drop his sword,” Kirk went on. He came to a halt beside Niall and eyed the placement of the dagger in the target a dozen paces away. “Strike a wee bit higher next time, and he willnae only lose his grip on the blade, but he willnae be able to pick it up again for a sennight.”
Niall nodded. “Aye, I will.”
He might bristle at being called English, but he wouldn’t let that get in the way of his progress. Even after six long years at the Bodyguard Corps’ training camp here in the Highlands, he was hungry to prove himself. In fact, the only one in the camp who was more eager to learn the skills of weaponry and combat was—
“Mairin!” Kirk called. “Ye’re up.”
Niall remained rooted in place, his gaze locked on the target before him. Yet the hairs at his nape stirred as he sensed Mairin drawing toward him.
Her footfalls were nearly silent, despite the fact that a fragile crust of ice lay atop the few inches of snow on the ground. She was so slight of frame that she hardly disturbed the crunchy snow as she approached.
The faint rustle of fabric as she shed her cloak in preparation to take her turn against the target told him that she was right behind him now. There was no reason for him to continue standing there—no reason other than the fact that Mairin’s nearness made him porridge-headed.
Niall abruptly turned and strode toward Ansel Sutherland and Will Sinclair, who waited a few paces back for their own turn. But he couldn’t stop his gaze from shooting to Mairin as he passed.
Despite the iron-gray clouds overhead, her hair, which was pulled back into its usual plait, shone with a vibrant luster. Her locks were mostly soft brown, yet glints of honey blonde and golden-red made her hair the exact color of the strong Highland whisky the men at the camp drank.
The delicate lines of her face were set in concentration as she assessed the target, though her cold-pinkened nose and cheeks softened her serious countenance.
As he strode by, her dove-gray eyes flicked to him. The spark of wariness in their depths was like a splash of ice water, jerking Niall back to his wits. He tore his gaze away, locking his jaw and lengthening his strides until he reached the others.
She hated him. Aye, he had known that from the moment she’d entered the camp nearly four years ago. Yet he seemed to need the reminder from time to time, else his foolish fascination with her ran unchecked.
“What should I aim for?” Mairin asked Kirk, her voice so soft that it barely drifted even the few paces to where Niall stood with Ansel and Will.
Kirk considered, absently spinning one of the ovular throwing daggers between his fingers.
“Ye are fast, but smaller, which means stunning a man with a hit to the shoulder or arm may no’ give ye enough of an opening to overpower him.” The dagger abruptly halted in Kirk’s palm. He extended it, handle-first, toward Mairin. “Go for a kill shot instead.”
Mairin took the blade, hefting it a few times to measure its weight. Then her hand closed around its hilt and she shifted her stance, dropping her right foot behind her left and softening her knees.
“Keep yer grip light—aye, that’s it,” Kirk instructed quietly. “Remember, the power comes from the pivot of yer foot and travels through the torque of yer hips and the flick of yer wrist, no’ the strength of yer fingers.”
Mairin nodded, but never took her gaze from the target. A puff of white steam slipped past her lips as she slowly exhaled. Then faster than Niall could blink, Mairin’s arm drew back and snapped forward. The dagger was a dark blur through the air for less than a heartbeat. A loud thwack reverberated through the otherwise quiet woods where they stood.
Niall’s gaze flew to the target. Mairin’s dagger shivered dead in the center of the charcoal man’s throat, the narrowest part on the target.
Beside him, Ansel whistled softly, his crossed arms dropping to his sides. The man shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Ansel was the unofficial leader of the camp, directing the other Corps members’ training and more often than not guiding their drills. He’d seen Mairin go from a completely inexperienced girl of sixteen to a warrior equal in ability to the best fighters in Scotland—in just four years.
After only a few lessons with Kirk, it was no great shock that Mairin already excelled with the throwing daggers. Still, Ansel’s amazement made Niall swell with pride on Mairin’s behalf.
Niall’s gaze shifted to Will to gauge his reaction, but Will’s one good eye was pinned on Kirk as if he wished he could kill the man with only his stare.
In truth, Will probably did want to kill Kirk, or at least maim him, as Kirk had maimed Will.
“Excellent hit, Mairin,” Kirk said warmly, apparently opting to ignore Will’s lethal glare.
Mairin dipped her head at Kirk’s praise, wordlessly scooping up her cloak and striding toward the group.
“Will, yer turn.”
Will gave Mairin a nod of respect as he passed, but then he fixed his glare on Kirk once more.
It had been this way between the two of them ever since Kirk had entered the camp to train with the other Corps members not long after Niall had arrived. Both knew that the Bruce wouldn’t take kindly to one of his elite warriors killing another, so Will had to satisfy himself with glowering, and Kirk lived with Will’s near-constant hatred directed at him.
Mairin glided over the crunchy snow, opting to stand on Ansel’s right side—as far away from Niall as possible.
“Nice shot, wee Mackenzie,” Ansel murmured, giving Mairin a teasing nudge with his elbow. “Soon enough ye’ll be teaching Kirk a thing or two.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Niall saw Mairin’s lips curve ever so slightly. God, what he would do to be the recipient of one of her rare, soft smiles. But nay, they were never for him.
Niall ripped his attention back to Will and Kirk.
“…for a hit to the arm,” Kirk was directing, but Will hardly seemed to be listening. He snatched the dagger from Kirk’s grasp, planted his feet hastily, and flung the small blade at the target.
The dagger hit wide to the left, far outside the charcoal outline and barely even on the wooden board at all. Will likely could have gotten closer to the target if he’d taken the time to set his feet, but the truth was, the loss of his right eye had skewed his perception of depth. It was the same when they practiced drills with bow and arrow. Will’s aim had been permanently altered—thanks to Kirk.
Neither man liked to speak of it, but Niall had pieced the story together over the years. Will had been assigned to protect Lillian Fitzhugh from the Order of the Shadow, a league of bounty hunters to which Kirk had once belonged. When Kirk had sought to kidnap Lillian for a bounty, Will had attempted to stop him. Kirk had used a throwing dagger—the Order’s weapon of choice for its bounty hunters—to slash Will’s right eye, incapacitating him long enough to take Lillian.
Of course, matters had been somewhat smoothed over since then. It had turned out that Kirk had been working for the Order at Robert the Bruce’s secret command so that the organization could be dismantled from within. Once the Order had been destroyed, Kirk had married Lillian, who now happily resided with him at the training camp.
But Will bore the permanent damage done by that particularly dangerous mission. Once a quick-witted, generally amiable young man, Will had become bitter since his injury. His face was nearly always set in a scowl behind the black eyepatch he wore.
“Satisfied?” Will practically spat the word at Kirk as he pinned the man with his singular blue-green eye. “Or would ye have me try again?”
“Ye are overcorrecting,” Kirk replied evenly. “Pulling to the left.”
“Aye, I imagine having a second eye would help with that.”
“That’s enough practice with the throwing daggers for today,” Ansel said loudly, shooting a warning look at both men. “Let us turn to grappling.”
“I’ll pair with MacLeod.” Will’s voice was frosty, yet his gaze heated with a fierce intensity that revealed his glee at the opportunity to spar with Kirk.
“Verra well,” Ansel said grudgingly. “Wee Mackenzie, English, pair up.”
Niall’s gaze shot to Mairin. She was eyeing him, her brows lowered. She turned to Ansel, her lips parting as if to protest, but Will and Kirk had already begun circling each other, each in a crouch in preparation for the other’s attack. Ansel’s attention was focused on them, likely in case he needed to pull Will away if his grappling became too aggressive.
Mairin dropped her cloak once more, apparently resigned to having to spar with Niall.
“A moment,” she muttered, bending to gather her skirts.
Despite the fact that he’d seen this particular maneuver before, Niall still swallowed hard. When they practiced with bow and arrow or throwing daggers, Mairin’s skirts were no bother to her, but when it came to hand-to-hand combat or sword work, she’d gotten in the habit of pulling her skirts through her legs and tying them in a knot so that they made breeches of a sort.
After teasing her about her ridiculous getup a few times, Ansel had suggested that she give up her skirts all together in favor of breeches in the style of the English, as Niall wore. But Mairin had immediately rejected such a suggestion, claiming the idea of dressing like an Englishman was beyond repugnant to her.
Though Niall had gotten plenty of ribbing from the kilt-wearing Highlanders in the camp for his breeches, their words had never cut quite like Mairin’s soft yet fervent repudiation of all things English. She would rather struggle with her skirts on a near-daily basis than have aught in common with him.
What was worse, however, was how the knotted fabric revealed Mairin’s slim, stocking-covered ankles, calves, and even knees. The first time she’d secured her skirts in this way, Niall had resorted to claiming an injury before sparring could begin, just to escape the possibility of touching her. She’d been all too happy to see him go.
Now, he pried his gaze away, pretending to scan the snow-dusted trees beyond the little clearing where they practiced.
“Ready,” Mairin said after a moment.
He turned to find her already sinking into a fighting stance. Niall cleared his throat and approached slowly, his hands lifted before him and his knees soft.
Mairin’s eyes narrowed as he drew closer. “Dinnae go easy on me.”
“I won’t,” Niall lied.
There was no way in hell he’d land a blow on her with the same force he would use against Ansel, Will, or Kirk. Niall stood head and shoulders above Mairin and was easily twice her weight. While he’d filled out considerably over the years he’d spent in the camp, building hard-earned strength from long days of training, she’d only seemed to grow more compact. Her small frame had become more agile and taut, yet she was slight as ever.
Aye, he had the advantage of size, height, and strength over her, but as they began circling each other slowly, he was reminded that she was far swifter and nimbler than he. When he hesitated to initiate an attack, her fist flew out at blinding speed, catching him between the ribs. She kept the blow light enough that his rib didn’t crack, but he knew from the sharp ache that her knuckles would leave a bruise.
He made a sweep with his foot, attempting to catch her legs, but she danced out of reach with an easy grace that belied her lethal skill. Cautiously, he closed the distance once more. This time, when she took another swing, he was ready.
He caught her driving punch in his palm and pivoted, torqueing her arm behind her back. She wriggled, trying to break free, but he pulled her back against his chest, leveraging her arm a hair’s breadth more.
“Nay,” she hissed. Abruptly, she jutted her bottom into his hips, creating more room for herself. She folded forward and reached for one of his legs between her own with her free arm. She yanked his ankle off the ground, sending him tumbling backward. But because he still had a grip on her wrist, she came with him.
He landed hard on the icy snow, his breath slamming from his lungs. As Mairin toppled after him, he rolled fully onto his back, using his body to break her fall. She landed with a grunt on top of him, making his already battered lungs scream in protest.
Like a spooked animal, Mairin scuttled off him and scrambled to her feet.
“Why did ye do that?”
“Do what?” he wheezed, rising to his own feet much slower.
“Keep me from hitting the ground.” She watched him rise with guarded eyes.
Niall attempted an indifferent shrug. “Who says I meant to?”
But everyone in the camp knew that he had been dunderheaded and moon-eyed over Mairin from the moment she’d entered the camp all those years ago. And they all knew she hated everything about him. His nationality. His nearness. Even his voice made her flinch.
At least she accepted his lie without comment. Her mouth tightened, but she lowered into a ready stance once more. Niall did the same, this time letting her close the distance.
She feigned with yet another punch, but when Niall lifted his arm to block it, she delivered a kick to his middle. He absorbed the blow with a sharp exhale that puffed white in front of his face. Disengaging, he took a few steps back. She closed on him, her eyes searching for a weakness.
As they circled each other, he slowly began to drop his left arm as if he were fatiguing. As the arm gradually lowered, it exposed the left side of his face. He knew the moment when she took his bait, for her eyes blazed with anticipated victory.
Her right fist flew out, intending to make contact with his jaw, but he ducked, catching her arm and thrusting his shoulder up under hers.
She was light enough that he hardly felt the moment he lifted her off her feet. If he were to complete this particular move, he would have sent her sailing over his head. Instead, he froze with her dangling across his back, his shoulder wedged under hers.
She gasped, whether at the contact of their bodies or his abrupt halt, Niall didn’t know.
“Arenae ye going to finish the throw?” she demanded at last. Her body tensed against his in preparation to make contact with the hard-packed snow.
Niall didn’t budge.
“I told ye no’ to go easy on me,” Mairin snapped. She wriggled in his hold, and though he could have kept her suspended over his back indefinitely, he eased her to her feet and released his grip on her arm.
When he faced her, her eyes were flinty with anger.
“I didn’t go easy,” Niall replied. It was true. Sparring with Mairin—touching her, holding her, only to have her twist free—was far from easy.
Mairin embodied everything Niall had come to admire and cherish about Scotland—beautiful, resilient, and untamed. Her eyes were the same color as the storm-swept, vast sky. Her silken hair was as intoxicating as potent Highland whisky. And she was as prickly toward Niall as the country’s legendary thistle.
But he had also learned long ago that trying to hold on to Mairin was like grasping sand. The tighter his grip became, the faster she slipped through his fingers.
He’d once thought to hold her close, to reach for something tender in her mysterious heart. But she wanted naught to do with him. He’d accepted that—or at least he’d tried to. He thought he’d walled off his desire for her, but it always seeped back the way water found a path through stone.
“Listen, English,” she said, her voice knife-edged. “I dinnae—”
Ansel’s sharp shout cut her off. “A rider approaches.”