Highland Hearts - Book One - by Heather McCollum
Fleeing with only her bow, horse, enormous pet wolf, and the cryptic clues hidden in her mother’s medicine journal, healer Meg Boswell gallops north toward freedom, running from the man who falsely accused her mother of witchcraft. Cursed with magical healing abilities, Meg knows that if she’s captured, she will die like her mother—atop a blazing pyre.
Winter winds rip across the Highlands, pressing Chief Caden Macbain forward in his desperate plan to save his clan. He’s not above using an innocent woman to bargain for peace if it keeps his clan from starving. But Meg isn’t who Caden thinks, and when she kills a man to save the clan, he must choose between duty and her life. For although he captured her to force peace, Meg’s strength and courage have captured Caden’s heart.
Title: Captured Heart (Highland Hearts, #1)
Author: Heather McCollum
Genre: Historical Fantasy Romance
Length: 400 pages
Release Date: September 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-058-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-057-2
© 2012 Heather McCollum
English/Scottish Border: September 1535
Meg Boswell pressed her forehead into the damp neck of her horse as she clung to his mane. Fingers of moonlight stretched down, flickering against woman and beast as they galloped along the narrow road flanked by shadows and trees.
Aunt Mary’s hasty directions beat in Meg’s head: Stay on the north road that follows the river up into Scotland.
Good Lord! She couldn’t even hear the river anymore. Was this still the right road?
Pippen’s hooves clopped hard against the packed dirt. A crisp night wind tossed the leaves overhead, twirling many down to cover the road. Meg coaxed the crumpled parchment from her cloak pocket and smoothed it as she balanced easily in Pippen’s sway. God, keep me on the right path. She blinked and held the scrap up to a flash of moonlight. Aunt Mary’s blocky letters were engulfed in shadow. With her empty hand Meg touched her thumb and index fingertips together and drew them apart slowly as if honey stuck between them. A soft blue bubble expanded into the size of a chestnut, illuminating the poorly written words.
Rachil Munro, Alec Munro. Scotlind to west bi see.
Meg hastily snuffed out the blue orb and secured the note.
She reached out to Pippen with her senses. The horse’s breath came in labored puffs. His lungs expanded and contracted, muscle fibers stretched with exertion, heart pounding, nearing its limit.
Meg swallowed past the clenching in her throat and pulled back on Pippen’s reins. “Whoa,” she breathed. She glanced behind her. Only darkness. No torches or snapping hounds. No hangman or executioner. No Rowland Boswell.
She sucked down the cool air. Breathe deeply. Panic chased people off cliffs, and panic had already ruled her day. Calm thinking must save her now, for she definitely needed saving.
Uncle Harold may be too afraid of English law to help, but Aunt Mary wasn’t. Fear of witchcraft accusations chased all healers, even if she didn’t have the curse that Meg had to hide. When they’d received word that Meg’s father, Rowland Boswell, was half a day away and coming to retrieve her, Aunt Mary had packed up Meg and thrown her onto a horse. Boswell wrote that Meg was to be assessed for godliness and married to a prestigious man at court.
Assessed for godliness? In other words he planned to test her for witchery. And Meg wasn’t going to sit obediently at home waiting to be examined, tried, and burned on the same false charges as her mother.
A branch in the thick woods snapped. Meg choked on a breath, coughing on the acrid taste of subdued panic. She glanced once again over her shoulder.
Let no one see your light. Aunt Mary’s words beat through Meg’s memory in the silence. Eyes wide, searching the shadows, she pulled her bow to rest in her lap. Nothing. ’Tis nothing. She was well ahead of her father. She would get away.
Pippen nickered and twitched his ears. Meg stroked his sweaty neck as she scanned between the flanking trees. How many nights of terror would there be? Did this road lead to the Highlands like Aunt Mary had said, or would she need to ride across moors and mountains to the west? She should have taken more supplies, sought more direction. Yes, panic had ruled the day.
Pippen trotted a step or two, kicking up his hind feet. Meg patted the horse’s neck. “Nickum’s out there. He wouldn’t leave us.
“Nickum?” Calling out in the silent night made her feel naked, revealed.
Unfamiliar yellow eyes reflected the moonlight as they peered out from the trees. Not Nickum. Meg put two fingers to her mouth and blew, sending a shrill whistle into the stillness.
The night breeze picked at her curls, tickling them across her cheek. She tucked the stray pieces behind an ear and touched Pippen’s neck to assess his physical condition again. Contact with his skin made this quick and easy, second nature to her. Another thing to hide.
One small tap with her heels and the horse hopped into a trot and then loped into a canter.
Too bad none of her little curses fought off wild animals and bandits and smothered witch’s flames. Meg readied the bow and twisted in the saddle. Six sets of yellow eyes stared out from the trees. Her heart leapt. Wolves! As they stalked out into the open, Meg breathed and gripped the nocked arrow.
The wolves were smaller than Nickum, but they ran in a pack. They were skinny, hungry. Unlike Nickum as a cub, these hunters saw Meg and Pippen as a means to survive, a huge meal to keep their pack fed.
“Not without a fight.” Meg raised, took aim, and fired, three separate movements strung together in lethal harmony as natural to her as breathing. Just like at practice with Uncle Harold. A yelp cut through the stillness as the nearest beast rolled off the path.
The warning should have scared them off. However, they kept to the hunt. The moon cast white across their gray snouts and tipped ears as they loped several yards behind. Meg aimed again. The creature dodged at the last moment and the arrow sliced off into the night.
Breathe. Imagine a direct line from your arrow to the target. Once more she shot, this time piercing a rump. The beast’s muffled cry followed as he dodged into the woods.
Four more. She loaded, fired, and missed. She turned and clung low to Pippen, digging the heels of her boots into the horse’s sides. Pippen plunged through the splashes of moonlight that filtered down between the leaves of the thinning trees. She peered under an arm. Her heart dropped into her stomach as one wolf snapped at Pippen’s ankles.
“Go away!” she screamed. Fury pulsed, filling her and squelching fear. She didn’t want to kill them and she didn’t want to die.
The front wolf bent low, ears back, eyes narrowed. It plowed forward and the others followed. She notched another arrow, this time sitting up straight she aimed downward.
Whump! The arrow pierced the beast’s back, and he careened off to the gully. She twisted to the other side, balanced on the charging horse. Pippen’s coat slicked with sweat. The poor horse couldn’t outrun them.
“Nickum!” Was he out there? Had the pack taken him down first?
Meg twisted. At the same time Pippen jumped, stretching his body over a fallen log. The arrow fired into the air as she clung to Pippen with her thighs, determined to hold on. He veered into the trees.
Wham! A branch slammed into her chest and plucked her off the horse. Can’t breathe! She hung for a moment before falling to the hard ground. It happened too fast to scream. The impact rattled her body, as a spike of pain sparked lightning behind her eyes. No! She must remain conscious. She heard snarling, snapping. Oh God! She must stay… Then nothingness.
One must move slowly after a trauma, especially one to the head. Meg repeated the advice until the words began to make sense. Slowly the darkness began to make sense again. It had been night. She’d been riding somewhere fast. Her heart pounded. Where had she been going? She groaned and brushed at the tickle in her ear. North? Yes, to Scotland.
“My head,” she whispered, and finally blinked her heavy lids. She fingered the back of her hair and winced upon contact with a lump, sticky with drying blood. Nickum lay next to her, watching through glowing wolf eyes. Was there concern in his blank stare? Nickum whined and laid his muzzle on her chest. Definitely concern.
She raised a hand and splayed fingers through her friend’s fur. “I’m still whole. If this isn’t some awful nightmare, you’ve probably saved my life.”
She ached everywhere as she rolled toward the wolf’s mud-splattered coat. “Nickum.” She pushed her face into the dense fur, needing the comfort of a warm protector. Upon contact Meg knew where all his scratches and bites were under the thick coat. Her fingers trembled as she searched for them. He had obviously battled.
“Any other hurts?” She closed her eyes and inhaled, focusing on the core of power that sat below her breastbone, just under the oddly shaped birthmark. She imagined it as a bright blue light like the one she could summon between her fingers. Meg pushed the power up and out of her hands to thoroughly search her friend. The muscles of his heart squeezed and relaxed with a strong steady beat, his stomach rolled half full, his bladder sat empty. Some muscles around one shoulder were bruised but it wasn’t serious. She released a breath. “Just some scrapes and bites.” She’d use ointment on them. She jabbed two fingers through his thick fur to yank off a small tick she’d detected on his neck.
She rolled gingerly to one side to stand with the help of a young oak. Nickum stood against her to add support. She breathed in again, but this time she let the bright blue ball of light spread through her own body, searching for injury. Bruises would darken her back and the arm that had taken the brunt of the fall. Thank the good Lord, her head injury was contained outside the skull. She opened her eyes and noticed dawn seeping into the dark blue sky.
“I will survive the night.” She splayed her fingers through Nickum’s fur. “With a bump on my head.”
She glanced around. The bodies of three wolves lay nearby. Her fingers curled into his coat. “Let us find Pippen.”
Pippen stood sweaty and trembling near a twisting creek. The creek tumbled along the face of a rock wall made up of towering moss-covered boulders. She whispered gentle words to her horse while she surveyed his injuries. She tied his reins loosely to a tree behind large holly bushes.
“Nickum?” she called softly, her gaze running the length of the rock face. Yellow eyes reflected out of a dark crevice. “You found a cave, clever wolf.” Meg stepped into the pitch darkness toward him, totally trusting his instincts.
Out of habit, she glanced over her shoulder. Of course no one was there. She was alone in a cave in the forest. Yet the fear of discovery still kicked her heart into a run as she formed a small glowing orb between her fingers. The size of a currant, it illuminated the wide chamber once she walked past the narrow entrance. A deep earthy smell of moss and decaying leaves infused the sheltered space. She crouched in front of Nickum and scratched his ears.
Meg managed to pull several clay jars from her leather satchel with one hand while the other held the blue orb. It was better than a candle that could burn out, but she couldn’t just set it in the corner to light the small shelter. Conjuring the light shot her blood through her body in case she’d need to flee.
The ointments she’d made with figwort and St. John’s wort would help Nickum. But first she’d have to wash the worst of his bites. She forced a smile at her reluctant patient who outweighed her three times over. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
By the time the horizon had lightened to dawn, Meg had managed, after one brief scuffle, to clean and apply some salve on the worst of the wolf’s wounds. Nickum shot out of the cave as soon as she let go.
“Ungrateful,” she called to his retreating tail.
Meg gingerly lowered onto her cloak and closed her eyes. She exhaled long and willed the tension to dissolve along her aching muscles. It had been the longest night of her life. Oh, how she would relish this sleep.
Minutes later the sound of thunder roused her. She groaned and covered her head with the cloak. The thunder continued…and continued. She pushed up on her elbows. A sunbeam shot into the cave opening instead of the rain she’d expected. She listened to the ebb and flow of the deep pounding and stood to peek outside. The source of the rumbling came from farther down the rock wall.
She stood by the opening to the cave listening, trying to discern the source of such noise. She should stay put, hidden in the dark cave. A voice? She swore she heard a voice, a man’s voice. Meg’s heart leapt into a sprint. Could her father have caught up to her?
Her eyes shifted to where she’d tied Pippen to a bush outside the cave opening. “Pippen?”
He was gone! Her only means of escape. She had to find him.
Meg grabbed her bow and quiver before slinging them over one shoulder. She stepped out and made a quick search of the bushes close by. No Pippen. She’d tied him to the bushes, hadn’t she?
Meg jogged the path that lay along the rock face. She pushed past a bramble bush and stepped into…hell.
The clashing, scraping noise and grunts of men, the tangy smell of blood and iron mixed with campfire smoke. The sights, smells, and sounds of battle tangled around her where she stood, suffocating her. Meg covered her mouth with the inside of her elbow and squinted through the haze created by the sun heating the dew off the grass. Men ran everywhere, yelling, cursing, slashing. Blood-painted men lay scattered amongst the ferns and beaten down cornflowers.
There were two distinct groups scattered together, hacking and falling. One wore English clothing, the other Scottish kilts. Definitely a border skirmish. Not her father’s doing. There on the other side of the meadow stood Pippen. Relief barely penetrated Meg’s shock at the vicious carnage. She’d never seen a battle up close, only the aftermath, which was when her Aunt Mary took her to patch up injuries.
Why would a troop of Scotsmen be on this side of the border? Crossing these days was practically a declaration of war with King Henry VIII’s reformation and Scotland’s King James V’s harboring of Catholic refugees. The two stubborn monarchs had made tensions between Scotland and England even more brittle. Had war been declared without Uncle Harold knowing?
A large Scotsman strode through the mist. His powerful stride pulled Meg’s attention. The haze swirled around him as if he compelled it to move aside. His bare, muscled arms brought down smooth and powerful slashes against two of the English. Uncle Harold had told story upon story of the mighty warriors in the north, about their bravery and skill unlike the paid English military.
The Englishmen fought back as one, trying to lunge at him from opposite sides. Each time they attacked, their blades met steel, not flesh. Meg watched, frozen, as the Englishmen weakened under the Scotsman’s claymore until in one swift stroke the fearsome warrior sliced through the shoulder of one.
She gasped and put her hand flat against her lips. Too late. The noise had carried. The Scotsman pivoted in her direction while the second Englishman retreated into the opposite woods.
Meg backed up until the sharp granite boulder dug into her bruised back. The man walked toward her, his eyes intent, assessing. His frown, piercing gaze, and the blood splattered across his untied shirt gave him the air of an ancient barbarian from Aunt Mary’s history book. The man’s biceps corded as he raised the sword so as not to drag it. Power, raw and unchecked, radiated from him as he stalked forward.
She tried to swallow, tried to breathe. She was squeezed between the rock wall at her back and the warrior’s hard gaze with barely room to inhale.
Meg held up a hand, palm out. “Stad,” she said.
The giant stopped his advance but clearly had not given up the hunt. Meg slid her arrow into position on the bow, pointed down, but if the Scotsman came too close, her bow would be of little use against his obvious strength.
“You speak Gaelic,” he said in his ancient language. “Interesting.” His deep voice pushed a fizzle of lightning through Meg. His gaze seemed to follow it down her length.
“Yet ye dress like the Sasunnach.” The last word meant English and came out as a curse.
Meg didn’t move. She couldn’t.
“Where is yer escort?” he asked in English, although his Scottish brogue curled around the words, making them sound ruggedly foreign.
A movement caught Meg’s attention. An English soldier walked up behind the warrior, a boulder raised over his head to strike him. Good God! Meg raised her bow, the arrow nocked.
“Stad! Stop!” she yelled. “Watch out!” Panic surged through her.
The Scotsman turned at the same time she fired. The arrow hit its mark in the flesh of the English soldier’s upper arm. The force threw the Englishman backward, the boulder tumbling out of his grasp. The granite grazed the edge of the Scottish warrior’s head, and he dropped to the ground.
Meg’s hand flew to cover her mouth. The Englishman grabbed his arm where her arrow stuck out and took a step toward her.
“Hanover!” another Englishman yelled from the other side of the field. The injured man glared at her as he held his bleeding shoulder but retreated back across the meadow.
Meg touched the fallen warrior’s chest, searching him for injury. The warrior would have an ache in his head from the mild swelling she sensed and a new scar, but he would live.
Thank you, Lord. Since when had she decided to side with the Scottish? Perhaps it was because of the valiant stories she’d heard growing up or because she was headed to her Aunt Rachel in Scotland, away from an English father. Or perhaps it was the strong jawline and wavy brown hair of the Scottish warrior.
Foolish! She sprinted back through the woods, desperate to get out of there before he awoke. She jerked to a stop. Ugh! She still had to retrieve Pippen! She huffed and continued her jog. Later. It was too dangerous right now with the English out there and the Scotsman waking soon. She dove into the cave and tripped over Nickum.
She groaned softly. “I’ve endured a beating.” She crawled to the back of the cave, threw her cloak around her shoulders, and lowered herself onto the ground.
As her body began to calm, the weight of exhaustion pulled at her worn muscles. She would just rest awhile. And pray. She pulled the leather bag of medicines and her mother’s last effects toward her without letting go of Nickum, then pushed her hand inside and sifted through the small clay jars, past the healing journal and grasped onto cold hard iron. Meg pulled her mother’s key out and hugged it against her heart. Somehow the familiar weight of it grounded her.
What am I going to do? Warriors out there. Boswell following me. I’m practically lost. With no mount. Meg ran her fingers through Nickum’s fur and held tight to the heavy key. She would rest, rest, and pray until she knew the men outside had left. Then she’d figure something out. She would survive, just like Uncle Harold had taught her. “Dear God, guide us to safety,” she whispered. “Guide us to safety and to the truth.”
9 June 1517—Figwort: shrub that grows as tall as a Scotsman, oval leaves, and small reddish-brown flowers during summer.Decoction to treat swellings, sprains, redness, putrid wounds, diseased parts, sores, and flesh rot. Crush fresh leaves into an ointment, with the cridhe of a stone.
Caden Macbain, chief of Clan Macbain, punched his way through the muck of darkness that strapped him down. The brittle lightning that arced through his head reassured him that he was indeed alive. As he opened his eyes, Ewan Brody’s grim face split into a grin. Caden’s friend and second in command grabbed his hand. Ewan’s strength could carry Caden’s large frame, but Caden shook him off. He’d stand on his own. Caden swore beneath his breath and touched the side of his head. His own blood stuck to his fingers.
“Good to see you rise, Caden.” Ewan studied him with an irritating grin. “I’d hate to have to tell your sister that an Englishman killed you with a pebble.”
Caden frowned and pinched the pain that had settled between his eyes at the top of his nose. “’Twas a bit more than a pebble.” He surveyed the meadow. “The battle is finished?”
“Aye, you slept through the last of it.” Ewan pushed the small boulder with his boot. “You’re lucky the English have poor aim. He would have cracked your skull open if he had hit you straight on the head.” He chuckled. “To be knocked unconscious by a Sasunnach—”
“Enough!” Caden roared.
Ewan backed away, although his grin stayed in place.
Fury, at himself, filled Caden’s gut. He had been deaf to the English dog sneaking up on him. Caught off his guard…by a woman.
“Where did she go?” he demanded as he turned in a tight circle.
Ewan, Hamish, and several of the young warriors turned to search the clearing.
“Where’d who go?” Ewan asked.
“Bloody hell, she’s gone,” Caden said and strode to the rock wall. The woman with large, beautiful eyes. He hadn’t imagined her.
“See to the wounded,” Ewan said to the other men, “and set a guard in case the English cowards decide to regroup.” The young warriors quickly dispersed to set up a small camp. “Caden, who is this ‘she’ you’ve misplaced?”
Caden studied the ground, but his mind filled in the memory. She had stood in the mist with the sun shining on her hair. Red highlights flowed through her deep brown hair over her slender shoulders to her narrow waist. Her lips—full kissable lips—had been parted, breathless, and totally begging to be plundered.
Long lashes framed her eyes. Hazel. More green than blue or brown. Although they had been round, she hadn’t swooned nor frozen in fear. The lass had courage and skill. She’d fired her bow at him, or at the English. Caden frowned. Had she meant to shoot him and missed?
“Diana, goddess of the hunt,” Caden said without a trace of humor. “She appeared like the huntress that my da described to us from the ancient stories,” he mumbled, and peered through the forest.
He easily picked out the broken branches that marked her trail. He glanced at Ewan, who stared back like he’d lost his sense. “Bloody hell, Ewan, I’m not touched in the head. There was a lass here, and she shot the bastard with her arrow.”
“So,” Ewan said haltingly, his face a mixture of worry and checked amusement, “a pagan goddess saved your thick head?”
Caden scowled. “I know she isn’t an ancient goddess, but I did spy a lass along the edge of this rock face.” He plucked an arrow fletching from the twigs and traced the feather with his finger. “Her eyes were so wide.” He pointed to the trail through the forest. Deep smudges in the soft earth showed that she’d run back along the rock face. “And she knows naught about hiding her tracks.”
Ewan took the fletching from Caden’s fingers and studied it. “Who is she?” he asked. “I’m intrigued. I will call a search.”
“Nay,” Caden returned abruptly. “The men would scare her.” A worse vision replaced his concern. At least ten of the English bastards had scattered from the battle. One of them might find the girl. What if she were alone?
“I don’t have time for this,” he grumbled and pushed past the bare branches. “I’m in bloody England on a mission, not to rescue foolish lasses.”
Although she had saved his head. And she was the loveliest woman he’d ever seen.
She could be surrounded by battle-stung Englishmen ready to take out their vengeance and lust on an innocent lass. The thought tore across his chest, and Caden pushed off into a run along her trail of broken twigs and churned up mud. Hell, he could nearly trace her individual footprints.
He stopped at the rock wall where the grass had been flattened and chewed. No horse, but the woman’s footprints led to a crack in the rock face. A cave. Caden ducked his head into the dark hole and pulled his dirk from his boot.
“Lass?” He blinked to help his eyes adjust to the low light.
A deep growl came from the rear of the cave and every nerve in Caden’s body shot warrior’s lightning along his muscles. He crouched, dirk before him, and squinted into the black. Bloody hell, the lass had walked into a wolf’s den! He crouched, waiting for the beast to hurl his body at him. Waiting and listening for the faintest sound of human life. Waiting for his blasted eyes to adjust to the dark.
With another long blink, the outline of a huge beast standing over a lump came out of the inkiness. A foot. There was a small foot sticking out from under the wolf.
“Don’t move, lass.” Caden spoke in English using the most unaggressive voice he could muster with the blood pounding through him, urging him to lunge. “I’ll lure him out.”
The beast growled low again and Caden wondered briefly how heavy the creature was.
“Scotsman?” Her soft voice penetrated the darkness.
“Aye,” he answered and blinked hard at the strange sight.
The woman sat up and pushed her hands against the side of the wolf.
“Stad, wait,” he gritted out as calmly as he could.
Caden took another small step forward in the tight space. Even bent, his shoulders grazed the ceiling. The wolf leaned back on his hind legs and snapped as if he were about to jump.
“Nickum, no!” The woman pulled her legs out from under the beast. “I know him…well, perhaps not really…” She stood, her hand stroking the enormous creature.
She pointed at Caden. “Your weapon. Put it down and he won’t attack, at least not unless you threaten me.”
Caden lowered his dirk but kept it poised to throw. He could hit the beast right between its yellow orbs if it turned on the girl. The wolf relaxed into a sitting position. He stared at the two for a long moment.
“Ye have a wolf,” was all he could think to say.
“My escort,” she said with strength in her voice. In the dim light that filtered into the cave, she was a darker blur against the rock. “Your head? You are well?”
“That’s the largest wolf I’ve ever seen.”
The woman patted the beast’s head. “I made sure he was fed well as a pup. He grew large…and protective,” she stressed. “Your head?”
Caden replaced the dirk in his boot. “Will heal.”
“You need to clean it.” She motioned to the mouth of the cave. “In the stream. I have a poultice that will help it heal without taint. I can give you some to apply.”
When he didn’t move, she shooed him toward the door again. “Go wash it.”
“I’m not leaving here without ye,” he said, the words surprising him. Her eyes grew round. “Not until I know ye are safe,” he added.
The woman stood bent over in the small cave. She picked up a bag and dug out a leather jar. “I am safe with Nickum.”
When she threw it to him, he caught it but didn’t move. The presence of the wolf and her odd behavior caught him there. For a long moment they all stared at one another.
“How,” he said slowly, “do I apply it?”
The woman huffed lightly and moved forward. “Go out so I can see.”
Caden stepped into the bright light, made certain they were alone, and turned to the woman. She blinked up at him. Her forehead drew together when she examined the cut on his head. Her lips, pink and soft, opened slightly. Caden shifted.
“Aye, my ointment will help immensely.”
“Ye are a healer.”
“A dab of this.” She took the leather cup from his hand. Her finger brushed his, her skin cool, thin, not the overly oiled skin of the pampered, but soft nonetheless.
“I have men who could use yer poultices.”
Concern warred with refusal across her lovely features for a long moment. He watched the tiny scrunch reappear between her sloped brows as she considered his request.
“Of course they could.” She uncorked the vial, dabbed some on her finger, and reached up to touch the cut over the bump. Caden hardly noticed the intense sting with her so close, just under his chin.
She stepped back, dropped the vial back in her bag, and eyed him warily. “You handled that much better than Nickum,” she said with a casualness that contradicted the stiffness in her stance.
“Yer wolf’s name is Gaelic.”
“I know some of your language,” she answered.
“I found him half starved as a pup, tangled in brambles, alone in the world. I pulled him out of so much trouble as he grew up, the name seemed fitting. He follows me everywhere.”
The woman’s eyes shifted past him into the forest, roaming, searching. Did she fear the English?
“My men are back in the meadow.”
“Oh, yes. I…yes, I can help for a time, but then I need to continue on.”
“Where are ye headed?”
She walked back along the face of the rock. Caden watched the natural sway of her hips and the soft folds of hair down her back as he followed. She didn’t answer his question. There was a little leaf stuck in the auburn waves. He reached to pluck it out right when she stopped. Caden pulled up short, his fist in her hair around the leaf.
She turned, her hair wrapping around a shoulder.
“Ye have a leaf.” He inhaled silently, pulling the fragrance and warmth of her closeness into his lungs. The flow of auburn silk smelled fresh, clean. What was that flower? Her gaze moved to his hand in her hair and then up to his eyes. So close, close enough to kiss. Caden dropped his hand and the leaf fell out on its own.
“North,” she said.
“North,” he repeated, having forgotten the question. Och, what a fool. How long had it been since he’d tupped a fine lass?
“I can pay ye with food,” Caden said, his words blunt.
Ewan spotted them and strode across the green. “Sweet Diana, ye are real.” He spoke in English and bowed to the woman, eyes lingering on her neckline. Caden scowled so hard his jaw ached. Ewan had a way with the lasses. He was slightly shorter than Caden and one of his most cunning warriors. The man had been known to use battle strategy to lure a lass into his bed.
Ewan’s eyes danced. “When ye shot yer arrow to save our chief’s life, fair lass, he saw ye in a golden glow coming out of the mist. ’Tis truth it is he who named ye after the pagan goddess of the hunt, Diana. However, I must say that ye are much more bonny than any goddess could ever be.”
She actually blushed over Ewan’s rhapsody and tucked a stray hair into place. “‘Chief’?” She glanced at Caden.
“Aye, he is our chief, Laird Caden Macbain, from the ancient Colum line of the Macbain clan, from Druim Keep at the base of the triple mountains, north of Loch Tuinn.”
The lass nodded as if all that made sense. Perhaps she was familiar with their country.
“And I am Ewan Brody, cousin to Caden and part of Clan Macbain. And what is yer true name, lass?”
Caden waited. What would she say? Would her name give a clue to her character like the one she’d given her wolf? A name could tell a lot about a person.
“Excuse me,” she said and jogged briskly to a man sprawled against a tree trunk.
Ewan’s eyes narrowed in confusion.
“Healer,” Caden said.
“You don’t know her name?”
“Not yet,” Caden said and followed her across the clearing. “Beware, she knows some of our language.”
Ewan cocked an eyebrow. “Interesting for an English.”
“I need fresh water, fire, rags. Clean.” She rattled off orders in fairly well pronounced Gaelic while she inspected the bloody end of Hugh Loman’s arm. The limb had been severed.
Caden motioned to Hamish. “Get what she needs.” The young warrior rushed toward the supply wagon. Caden called back over his shoulder so that everyone could hear his order, “and if anyone sees a large wolf around the parameters, don’t shoot it.” Several eyebrows shot up among the men, but not one question was voiced.
The woman stared at him and bowed her head slightly. A “Thank you” perhaps.
Caden inspected the state of his men around the camp. A skirmish had been anticipated, but not so soon after crossing the English border. Perhaps the young English king had ordered local militia to attack any Scot.
Caden took a long drink from a bladder filled with spring water. He wiped some of the liquid on the back of his neck. “Bloody English heat.” He would rather be home seeing to his clan’s protection. Unfortunately, his mission required the journey. He frowned. This skirmish would delay them and he needed a truce before the first snowfall to save his clan.
Ewan caught up with Caden. “What’s the lass doing out here on her own?”
“She hasn’t said.”
Ewan tilted his head to a tawny-colored horse tied to a tree on the other side of the camp. “Sean found him wandering about near the lass’s trail. I’m supposing it is hers.”
“Just she and the horse? Perhaps she’s daft,” Ewan whispered.
“Perhaps she is, Ewan. Best stay away from her.”
Caden moved onto the supply wagon to check the rations.
Ewan followed him. “What was that about a wolf?”
“She has a pet wolf.” Caden counted the barrels of mead then turned to Kieven, who was in charge of the food. “Fill all the containers ye have with that spring water before we move on.”
“A pet wolf,” Ewan mumbled and leaned against the wagon. “Most unusual.”
Caden surveyed the clearing. “Where’s Girshmel?”
“He’s checking the road and perimeter to the creek.” Ewan indicated the narrow river they’d been following behind him through the woods. “To make certain the English scampered home to lick their wounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if Girshmel brought back an English head on a stick. He is an odd one.”
Caden agreed. “Odd one,” he echoed, though his mind and gaze followed a very different odd one. The woman from the mist was unlike any lass he’d ever met. Alluring, capable, especially for an English lass. Perhaps it was the mystery shrouding her that caught at him. She shot a bow with accuracy, traveled alone through hostile countryside alongside a wolf, and although she was cautious, fear didn’t paralyze her. Diana, the goddess of ancient Greece, no. Yet there was something special about her, something unique, and Caden would figure out what it was.