The Highlander Series(5)By: Maya Banks
She wedged herself between him and Crispen and landed a knee to his groin. He doubled over, cursing as agony washed over him. He fell to one knee and grabbed his sword just as he whistled for his men. The woman was demented.
Through the haze of pain, he saw her grab a resisting Crispen and try to run. Several things happened at once. Two of his men stepped in front of her. She halted, causing Crispen to slam into her back. When she started in the opposite direction, Gannon raised his arm to stop her.
To Alaric’s astonishment, she swiveled, grabbed Crispen, and fell to the ground, her body huddled protectively over him.
Gannon and Cormac froze and looked to Alaric just as the rest of his men burst through the trees.
To further confuse the hell out of all of them, Crispen finally wiggled out from underneath her and threw himself on top of her, scowling ferociously the entire time at Gannon.
“Don’t you hit her!” he bellowed.
Every one of his men blinked in surprise at Crispen’s ferocity.
“Lad, I wasn’t going to hit the lass,” Gannon said. “I was trying to prevent her from fleeing. With you. God’s teeth, we’ve been searching for you for days. The laird is worried sick over you.”
Alaric strode over to Crispen and plucked him off the huddled woman. When he reached down to haul her upright, Crispen exploded again, shoving him back.
Alaric stared at his nephew with an open mouth.
“Don’t touch her,” Crispen said. “She’s badly hurt, Uncle Alaric.”
Crispen chewed his bottom lip, and it looked for the world like the lad was going to break down and cry. Whoever the woman was, it was obvious Crispen didn’t fear her.
“I won’t hurt her, lad,” Alaric said softly.
He knelt down and brushed aside the hair from her face and realized she was unconscious. There was a bruise on one cheek, but otherwise she didn’t look injured.
“Where is she hurt?” he asked Crispen.
Tears filled Crispen’s eyes, and he wiped hastily at them with the back of his grubby hand.
“Her stomach. And her back. It hurts her fierce if anyone touches her.”
Carefully, so as not to alarm the boy, Alaric pulled at her clothing. When her abdomen and back came into view, he sucked in his breath. Around him, his men alternately cursed and murmured their pity for the slight lass.
“God in heaven, what happened to her?” Alaric asked.
Her entire rib cage was purple, and ugly bruises marred her smooth back. He could swear one of them was in the shape of a man’s boot.
“He beat her,” Crispen choked out. “Take us home, Uncle Alaric. I want my papa.”
Not wanting the boy to lose his composure in front of the other men, Alaric nodded and patted him on the arm. There would be plenty of time to get the story from Crispen later. Ewan would want to hear it all.
He stared down at the unconscious woman and frowned. She had offered her body for Crispen’s, and yet she wore the colors of Duncan Cameron. Ewan would be beyond control if Cameron had any involvement in Crispen’s disappearance.
War. At long last, war would be declared.
He motioned for Cormac to tend to the lass, and he reached for Crispen, intending that the boy ride with him. There were several questions he wanted answered on the ride home.
Crispen shook his head adamantly. “Nay, you take her, Uncle Alaric. She has to ride with you. I promised her that Papa would keep her safe, but he’s not here so you have to do it. You have to.”
Alaric sighed. There was no reasoning with the boy, and right now he was so glad he was alive, he’d cede to his ridiculous demands. Later he’d bend the brat’s ear about not questioning authority.
“I want to ride with you, too,” Crispen said, his gaze nervously going to the woman.
He inched closer to her as if he couldn’t stand the idea of being separated from her.
Alaric looked skyward. Ewan hadn’t taken a firm enough hand with the boy. That was all there was to it.
And so Alaric found himself astride his horse with the woman draped across the saddle in front of him, her body shielded in the crook of one arm, while Crispen sat on his other leg, his head nestled against her bosom.
He glared at his men, daring even one of them to laugh. Hell, he had to relinquish his sword for the duty of carrying the two extra persons, never mind their weight didn’t equal that of a single warrior.
Ewan just better be damn grateful. He could decide what was to be done with the woman just as soon as Alaric dumped her into Ewan’s lap.
As soon as they crossed over the border onto McCabe land, a shout went up that echoed through the hills, and in the distance, Mairin heard the cry taken up and relayed. Soon, the laird would know of his son’s return.
She twisted the reins nervously in her fingers as Crispen all but bounced off the saddle in his excitement.
“If you keep gathering those reins, lass, you and the horse are going to end up back where you came from.”
She glanced guiltily up at Alaric McCabe, who rode to her right. His admonishment had come out as a tease, but God’s truth, the man scared her. He looked savage with his unkempt, long dark hair and the braids dangling on each side of his temples.
When she’d awakened in his arms, she’d nearly tossed them both out of the saddle in her haste to escape. He’d been forced to pry both her and Crispen from their perch against him, and he’d put them both on the ground until the entire thing could be sorted out.
He hadn’t been pleased by her stubbornness, but she had Crispen solidly on her side, and having extracted a promise from Crispen to tell no one her name, they’d both stood mute when Alaric demanded answers.
Oh, he’d blustered and waved his arms. Even threatened to choke the both of them, and in the end he’d muttered blasphemies against women and children before resuming their journey to bring Crispen home.
Alaric had then insisted she ride with him at least another day, because he said, in no uncertain terms, the likelihood of her sitting a horse by herself in her condition was nil, and it was a sin to abuse a good horse with an inept mount.
The journey that would normally last two days took them three, thanks to Alaric’s consideration of her condition and their stopping frequently to rest. She knew Alaric was considerate because he told her. Numerous times.
After the first day, she was determined to ride without Alaric’s assistance, if for no other reason than to wipe the smugness from his expression. He obviously had no patience for women, and, she suspected, with the exception of his nephew, whom he obviously loved, he had even less patience with children.
Still, given the fact that he knew nothing about her, only that Crispen championed her, he had treated her well, and his men had been politely respectful.
Now that they neared Laird McCabe’s stronghold, fear fluttered in her throat. She would no longer be able to keep silent. The laird would demand answers, and she would be obligated to give them.
She leaned down to whisper close to Crispen’s ear. “Do you remember your promise to me, Crispen?”
“Aye,” he whispered back. “I’m not to tell anyone your name.”
She nodded, feeling guilty for asking such a thing from the boy, but if she could pretend to be of no importance, just someone who happened upon Crispen and saw him safely back to his father, perhaps he would be grateful enough to provide a horse and maybe some food, and she could be on her way.
“Not even your father,” she pressed.
Crispen nodded solemnly. “I’ll only tell him you saved me.”
She squeezed his arm with her free hand. “Thank you. I could ask for no better champion.”
He turned his head back to grin broadly at her, his back puffing with pride.
“What are the two of you whispering about?” Alaric demanded irritably.
She glanced over to see the warrior watching her, his eyes narrow with suspicion.
“If I wanted you to know, I’d have spoken louder,” she said calmly.
He turned away muttering what she was sure were more blasphemies about annoying females.
“You must make the priest weary with the length of your confessions,” she said.
He raised one eyebrow. “Who says I confess anything?”
She shook her head. The arrogant man probably thought his path to heaven was already assured, and that he acted in accordance to God’s will just by breathing.
“Look, there it is!” Crispen shouted as he pointed eagerly ahead.
They topped the hill and looked down at the stone keep nestled into the side of the next hill.
The skirt was crumbled in several places, and there was a detail of men working steadily, replacing the stones at the wall. What she could see of the keep above the outer walls looked blackened by an old fire.
The loch spread out to the right of the keep, the water glistening in the sunlight. One of the fingers meandered around the front of the keep, providing a natural barrier to the front gate. The bridge across it, however, sagged precariously in the middle. A temporary, narrow path over the water had been fashioned to the side, and it would only allow one horse at a time into the keep.
Despite the obvious state of disrepair to the keep, the land was beautiful. Scattered across the valley to the left of the keep, sheep grazed, herded by an older man flanked by two dogs. Occasionally one of the dogs raced out to herd the sheep back into the imaginary boundary, and then he’d return to his master to receive an approving pat on the head.