Authors: Hannah Howell
Ewan told himself he was a grown man, a man of strength and resolve. He should be able to be alone with Fiona and not give in to his base urges. She was touching his leg only to tend his wound, an innocent touch that could be ignored.
That resolve began to fade away with each touch of her fingers against his thigh. He felt his ardor stir to life as she bandaged his leg, her soft fingers brushing perilously close to his groin as she worked. A quick look revealed that the bedcovers were bunched up enough to hide his reaction to her touch.
“Ye have blood on your face,” Fiona said as she straightened up from tying off the bandage on his thigh.
“Tis naught,” he said. “Tis just a wee scratch.”
“It should still be cleaned.”
When she leaned over him to bathe the cut, Ewan inhaled so sharply he nearly choked. Her skin was a clear, soft honey shade. No matter how hard he tried, he could not dispel the urge to see if her skin would taste as sweet and warm as it looked.
Just as she started to walk away, he wrapped his arm around her waist to hold her still. She trembled and he heard her breath catch as he kissed her throat. Feasting upon her soft skin, he kissed his way up her elegant neck to her lips. Her eyes were wide and held a look he was sure was one of a growing desire. Her full lips were slightly parted and he took quick advantage, kissing her deeply and with a fierce need he could not hold back…
Copyright © 2004 by Hannah Howell
Published by E-Reads in cooperation with Zebra Books. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
“Satan’s big toe!”
Fiona cautiously stood up, steadied herself, and vainly tried to rub away the throbbing pain in her backside as she watched her horse disappear over the hill. Her brothers were going to kill her, slowly. Gillyanne, her sister by marriage, would probably not come to her aid this time. Fiona had the lowering feeling that she had sunk herself deep into trouble this time, had, in fact, been utterly witless. She was miles from home, had no supplies, and the sun was rapidly sinking below the horizon. Even worse, no one at Deilcladach knew where she had gone.
“Weel, ye certainly showed Connor who is in control, didnae ye,” she muttered as she tried to discern exactly where that cursed horse had dropped her. “If only Connor had asked nicely instead of commanding me in that irritating way he has. Nay, nay, this isnae his fault. Tis yours and yours alone, Fiona MacEnroy. Tis ye who is to blame for this disaster.”
She looked around and realized it was not only the people of Deilcladach who did not know where she was. She did not know, either. Her annoying mount had dropped her in a place she had never been before. The wild ride she had just survived left her uncertain of which direction she should turn in to head home; not that she was very good at finding her way around under the best of circumstances.
This was undoubtedly the most reckless thing she had ever done. There was only one good thing about it that she could think of. The madman who had precipitated her long confinement at Deilcladach could not possibly know where she was, either. The man may have succeeded in causing her to do something completely witless, but at least he would not benefit from it.
Fiona idly rubbed her finger over the scar marring her left cheek.
had given it to her the first time he had cornered her, along with a matching one on her right cheek. She could almost feel the others he had inflicted before her family had caged her behind the thick walls of Deilcladach until they could hunt the madman down and kill him. Just thinking about the man sent chills of fear throughout her body, yet she had briefly, foolishly, forgotten that danger. She had succumbed to a raging need to ride free after too many months of confinement.
A sound caught her attention and she tensed. Horses were coming her way, fast. Even as she looked for a place to hide, the riders crested the small rise directly in front of her. Fiona drew her sword and dagger, then stood with her feet apart. She knew she had no chance of successfully defending herself against ten or more men, but decided it was better to die fighting than to allow that madman Menzies to keep slicing away at her.
Then she realized Menzies rarely had more than a few men with him. There were at least a dozen riders in front of her. One good look at the huge dark man at the fore of the troop told her this was not Menzies. Fiona held steady in her fighting stance, but had to fight back a wave of fear. Menzies might be insane, but he did not want her dead. She could not be sure these men would have that much restraint.
“Jesu, look there, Ewan!”
Ewan MacFingal just grunted in response to his brother Gregor’s cry. He was looking, but he was not sure he was seeing too clearly. Surely there could not be a small
female facing them with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other? Could she not count? There were twelve of them and only one of her, a very small, delicate one.
Signaling his men to halt, Ewan slowly rode toward the woman. She was dressed as a lad in a jerkin, breeches, and boots, but there was no doubt that she was a woman. It was not just the long, thick honey gold braid hanging down to her slim hips which gave her away, either. The lad’s clothing could not fully disguise her lithe feminine shape. Her face was definitely that of a woman, as well. A very beautiful woman.
When he was close enough to see her eyes, he felt his breath catch in his throat. They were big eyes, the long thick lashes surrounding them several shades darker than her hair, as were her finely arched brows. They were also the color of violets. He did not think he had ever seen eyes that color, or eyes so stunningly beautiful.
The rest of her heart-shaped face was equally captivating. She had delicate bones, from the soft curve of her high cheekbones to the line of her faintly stubborn jaw. Her nose was small and straight, her skin clear and fine with a hint of gold to it as if she had been gently gilded by the sun, and her lips were full and tempting. He idly wondered where she had gotten the scars, one on each cheek. They were neat, a rather gentle mark beneath each of her lovely cheekbones.
He silently cursed as he dismounted and drew his sword. If he was thinking that even her scars were beautiful, she was more dangerous than she looked. Ewan knew how intimidating he looked so was rather surprised when she only blinked once, slowly, looked him over, and then tensed in the way a warrior does when braced for an attack.
“Ye cannae be thinking to fight with me, lass,” he said, scowling at her.
“And why shouldnae I?” Fiona asked.
“Because I am a mon, bigger than ye in height and breadth.”
“I did notice that.”
It was impossible not to notice that, Fiona mused. He had to be a foot or more taller than her own meager five feet three inches, if she stood very straight. She suspected he might even be taller than her brothers. He was broad of shoulder, lean of hip, and had long, well-formed legs. His loosely fitted jerkin and breeches did little to hide the strength in his body. His sword looked rather impressive as well.
Fiona knew she ought to be shaking in her boots, but she was not. It puzzled her, for there was no softness to be found in his harsh features. There was a predatory look to the man. His bone structure was good, from the high cheekbones to the strong jaw, but there was a hardness to the face that stole away the elegant handsomeness it should have had. His nose had probably once been long and straight, but a break or two had left a bump at the bridge of it, giving it a hawkish look. Despite his dark scowl, she could see that his mouth was well shaped, a hint of fullness to his lips. His eyes were an intriguing bluish gray, like a clear summer sky when the clouds of approaching night started to seep into it. And he was lucky to still have both of them, she mused, as she glanced at the scar that ran from just above his right eyebrow, down his right cheek to his jaw, passing within a hair’s breadth of the corner of his eye. There was a hint of softness to be found in those eyes, however, in the long, thick lashes and neat brows that held the touch of an arch. His long, thick, pitch-black hair, hanging several inches past his broad shoulders, was braided on either side of his face and only added to his look of a fierce, dark warrior.
And he was very dark, indeed, she thought. Even his skin was dark, and something told her it was not from the sun. There was the inky shadow of an emerging beard, which
only made his face even darker. Fiona wondered why she, a woman who had spent her life surrounded by fair, handsome men, should find this dark man so attractive.
“Then ye will nay be fighting with me,” Ewan said, subduing the urge to back away from her intense study.
“They do say that the bigger a mon is, the harder he will fall,” she murmured.
“Then old Ewan ought to fair shake the ground,” said the young man holding the reins of the dark man’s horse, and the other men chuckled.
“I willnae fight with a wee lass,” Ewan said.
“Ah, that is a relief as I had no real urge to get all asweat and weary. So, I accept your surrender.”
“I didnae surrender.”
That deep, rough voice produced an impressive growl, Fiona decided. “If ye arenae going to fight and ye arenae going to surrender, then what
ye planning to do? Stand there all day blocking out the sun?”
If Ewan had not suspected it would be a serious error in judgment to turn his back on this woman, he would have scowled at his snickering men. “Now that ye have had your wee jest, I suggest
Fiona knew she had little choice, which made her feel distinctly contrary. She still felt no real fear, either. The man had made no attempt to attack or disarm her. The amusement of his men did not carry the taint of anger or cruelty. There was also a look upon the dark warrior’s face that she found oddly comforting. It was the same look her brothers gave her when they found her to be excessively irritating and were heartily wishing she was not a female so that they could punch her in the nose. Fiona knew instinctively that this man would not strike her any more than her brothers would.
“I wasnae jesting,” she said and smiled sweetly. “I am ready to accept your surrender now. Ye can just pile your weapons up neatly by my feet.”
“And just what do ye plan to do with a dozen prisoners?”
“I see. And we are all supposed to just sit quiet like good, wee lads, and let ye rob our clan.”
“Oh, I dinnae wish to rob your clan. All I want is a horse and a few supplies.”
“Ah, lost yours, have ye?”
“Mayhap I ne’er had one.”
“Ye are miles from anywhere. Do ye expect me to believe ye just popped up out of the heather, ye daft wench?”
“Wench? Did ye just call me a wench?”
Ewan did not think he had ever seen a woman’s humor change so rapidly. He had just begun to understand her game. In an almost playful way, she had been testing him, trying to see if he could be spurred to violence against a woman. She had begun to relax. Now it appeared that, with one ill-chosen word, he had set her back up and set the progress of their odd negotiations back several steps. Before he could say anything to mend matters, his brother Gregor spoke up and made the situation even worse.
“Actually, he called ye a daft wench,” said Gregor.
“I hate being called a wench,” Fiona said.
She sheathed her dagger, grasped her sword with both hands, and attacked so swiftly and gracefully, Ewan was struck with admiration. So struck that he came very
close to getting wounded. As he met her attack, however, he realized it would have been little more than a scratch, that she had not been aiming for anything vital. He also realized that she had been well trained. She might lack the strength and stamina to outlast a man in a long, hard battle, but she definitely had the skill and agility to give herself a fighting chance. A touch of good fortune or an error on the man’s part and she could win a fight. The silence of his men told Ewan they also recognized her skill. What he did not understand was why she had attacked him. He was sure it was not because he had called her a name she did not like. Ewan wondered if this was another test of some sort, one to judge his skill or to see just how hard he would try not to hurt her.
Fiona knew within minutes that this man did not want to harm her. He was fighting her defensively and she was certain that was not his way. Even as she wondered how she could now extract herself from this confrontation, it was ended. He blocked the swing of her sword and somehow ended up within inches of her. The next thing Fiona knew, her sword was gone from her hand, her feet were pulled out from beneath her, and she landed flat on her back, hard enough to knock the breath out of her. As she struggled to catch her breath, she braced for the blow of his body landing on top of her. It not only surprised her, but impressed her, when he somehow managed to completely pin her to the ground with his body yet rested very little of his weight upon her.
“Now, are we all done with this troublesome nonsense?” Ewan demanded, fighting to ignore the feel of her beneath him and pushing away the tempting images it tried to set in his mind.
“Aye,” Fiona replied, panting a little as she regained her ability to breathe. “I will accept your surrender now.” The man truly could growl impressively, she mused, and wondered why that rough noise should send small, pleasurable shivers down her back.
“Enough,” he snapped. “Ye are now my prisoner. Do ye have any other weapons?” he asked as he took the knife sheathed at her waist and tossed it aside, his brother Gregor quickly appearing to collect it along with her sword.
“Nay,” she answered and could tell by the way his eyes narrowed that he knew she lied.
“Surrender your weapons, woman.”
“I told ye, I dinnae have any more.” Fiona wondered if the fact that the knife sheathed at the back of her waist was digging painfully into her back was the reason her ability to lie was so hampered.
That thought had barely finished forming when she found herself caught up in a fierce wrestling match with the man as he tried to search her for weapons. She got some pleasure out of his curses and grunts, which revealed she was at least discomforting him. Unfortunately, it did not deter him. He quickly began to find all of her knives. His curses increased as he took the two strapped to her wrists just inside the sleeves of her jerkin, the two tucked inside her boots, and the one sheathed at her back. He even found the subtle slits in her breeches that allowed her to reach the knife strapped to each of her thighs and took those. All her struggling halted abruptly when he ran his big, long-fingered hands over her breasts and found the knife sheathed between them. As he tossed that to the man collecting her weapons, he yanked her to her feet, and she wondered why she could still feel the warmth of his touch.
Ewan stared at the collection of weapons a widely grinning Gregor had piled up. He suddenly realized that, at any point during their confrontation, she could have pulled
out one of those well-hidden knives and thrown it at him, or slipped it between his ribs. There was no doubt in his mind that she could have done so with speed, stealth, and deadly accuracy. He had obviously not failed any of those tests she had been putting him through. When he looked at her and she smiled sweetly, he immediately grew suspicious.
“Any more?” he asked.
“Of course not.” She met his narrow-eyed stare for a full minute before she sighed. “Just one.”
“Hand it to me.”
His eyes widened as she reached behind her head and pulled a knife from out of the thick coils of her braid. When she slapped it into his out-stretched hand, he ignored the hilarity of his men and studied the weapon. It was long with a narrow blade, sheathed in thick, soft leather, and the hilt had been made in such a way it looked like no more than an ornate hair ornament, yet was still perfectly usable.
“Why are ye so heavily armed?”
“Weel, it wouldnae be wise to ride about alone without a few weapons,” Fiona replied as she undid her sword belt and tossed it down with the other weapons, then began to remove the sheaths for her knives that she could reach discreetly.
“Tis nay wise to ride about alone nay matter how weel armed ye are.”
She scowled at him and he tried to fix his attention on her ill humor, but it was not easy. His gaze kept falling to where her hand had slipped inside the clever slits in her breeches to remove the knife sheaths strapped around each slender thigh. Ewan could all too clearly recall the feel of that soft skin. It had taken a lot of willpower to resist the urge to linger there, to stroke that soft skin, and to recall that he was disarming her beneath the amused gazes of his men.
Even worse, his palms still itched with the need to feel those firm, plump breasts again. He had all too briefly felt how perfectly they had nestled into his hands as he had searched her for more weapons. Despite her clothes and the fact that she had been bristling with weapons, he could not ignore the fact that she was a woman, a soft, temptingly shaped woman. Worse still, he seemed incapable of ignoring the fact that he desired her.
“What is your name?” he asked her as Gregor put all of her weapons in a sack.
“Fiona,” she replied and met his hard stare, one that demanded more information, with a smile.
“Fiona what? What clan? What place?”
“Do ye expect me to sweetly reply and give ye all that is needed to rob me and mine?”
Cleverness in a female could be extremely irritating, Ewan decided. “Where were ye headed?”
“Nowhere in particular. I was just riding about enjoying the rare sunny day.”
“Then how did ye end up here?”
“Ah, weel, my mount is a contrary beast. He bolted. I think I must have hit my head on the saddle pommel or the like, for after a rough ride, I became quite dazed. When I finally came to my senses, the wretched beast was moving at a calmer pace, but as soon as I tried to grab the reins, which had slipped from my hands, the horse bolted again. After yet another long, rough ride, he tossed me to the ground and left me here.”
“Is that the beast over there?”
Fiona looked to where he pointed and softly cursed. The big, gray gelding stood only a few yards away, idly feasting on soft grass. If she had known he was so close, she would have tried to catch him, might even have escaped the trouble she now found herself in. Then, she sighed, accepting her fate. Since she had truly needed a horse, it was certain that aggravating beast would never have allowed himself to be caught.
“Aye, that is him,” she replied.
“What is the name it answers to?”
“Several, actually, but if he is feeling particularly contrary, the best one to use is Wretched.”
“Wretched? Ye call your mount Wretched?”
“Tis short for Wretched Pain in the Arse. He is also called Curse to All Mankind, Limb of Satan…” She stopped when he held up his hand.
“Mayhap he wouldnae be so contrary if ye gave him a proper name,” Ewan said.
“He has one. Tis Stormcloud. He doesnae often answer to it, however. And he has weel earned the others.”
“If he is so much trouble, why do ye ride him?”
“He is big, strong, fast, and can go for miles without a rest. Of course, that isnae such a fine thing at the moment,” she muttered and glared at her horse, who looked at her, neighed, and tossed his fine head as if he were enjoying a fine laugh at her expense.
“Stay here,” Ewan commanded. “Watch her, Gregor.” He started toward the horse.
Fiona crossd her arms over her chest and watched him approach Stormcloud. To her utter surprise and a flash of extreme irritation, the man easily caught Stormcloud. The horse did not even try to elude him, seemed positively enraptured. She cursed as he led the horse back to her. When the animal looked at her and gave her a horsey snicker, she stuck her tongue out at him. Her captors found that worthy of a hearty laugh. Even the big man holding Stormcloud’s reins grinned.
“Mayhap, if ye spoke sweetly to the beast,” Ewan suggested, “he would feel more kindly toward ye.”
spoken sweetly to him, in the beginning, when I thought he was a reasonable beast,” Fiona replied. “I spoke so sweetly honey fair dripped from every word. It ne’er worked. Watch.” She stepped closer to the horse and began to flatter him. “Such a fine gentlemon, ye are, Stormcloud. Big, strong, fair to look upon.” She concentrated on keeping her voice low and coaxing, struggling to think of every compliment she could as she wooed him.
Ewan quickly lost interest in the game she played with her horse. He was caught firm in the magic of her voice. It was low, slightly husky, and dangerously seductive. The flattery she filled the horse’s ears with could all too easily flatter a man as well. He glanced at his men and realized they were being as seduced as he was, or nearly so. Ewan hoped their bodies were not growing as taut with need as his was or there could be trouble.
Just as he was about to end the game, to try to break the spell she wove, she reached for the reins. The horse lowered his head and shoved her away forcefully enough to cause her to sprawl on her back on the ground. Stormcloud then produced that sound which all too closely resembled a human snickering. Ewan tried his best not to laugh, but the loud hilarity of his men broke his control.
Fiona cursed softly as she got to her feet and brushed herself off, then glared at the
laughing men. “I dinnae suppose ye would have let me ride on him anyway.”
“Nay, I wouldnae,” Ewan said. “Ye are our hostage.”
“Might I learn just who plots to drag me off to his lair and try to use me to pick clean the purses of my kinsmen?”
“We are the MacFingals. I am Sir Ewan, the laird of Scarglas, and the mon weighted down with your vast array of weaponry is my brother Gregor. Ye can learn the names of the rest when we camp for the night.”
“Just how far away are ye taking me?” she asked as he searched her saddle and packs, handing Gregor her second sword and three more knives.
“Ye didnae think ten knives and one sword were enough?”
“I might have lost one or two weapons in a battle. What are ye doing?” she asked when he mounted Stormcloud.
Ewan grabbed her by the hand, relieved when she nimbly swung up behind him and offered no argument. “I am riding this horse. He has had more rest than my own. I am taking ye to Scarglas, a little o’er a day’s ride from here. When we get there, ye will tell me who ye are and where ye are from. Or ye can save us all a lot of trouble and do it ere we get there.”
Before she could tell him exactly how small his chances were of her granting that wish, he kicked Stormcloud into a gallop and left her with no choice but to hang on. He might have a lot of questions for her when they camped for the night, and she might even give him a few answers. She had a few questions of her own, however, such as who in the world were the MacFingals of Scarglas?
“She is muttering,” said Gregor as he leaned against the tree next to Ewan and joined him in watching Fiona.
Ewan almost smiled. The moment they had camped, he had ordered Fiona to prepare a meal. She had obeyed him, but made no secret of her annoyance. The fact that only Simon, the youngest of his men at sixteen and his half-brother, was helping her seemed to have added to her irritation. She was, indeed, muttering, when she was not sweetly telling an obviously infatuated Simon what to do. Ewan had caught only a few words of her disgruntled litany, and had decided it would be best to distance himself.
“I suppose that, because she believes she is a mon, she finds the chore demeaning,” continued Gregor.
“Oh, I dinnae think she believes she is a mon,” murmured Ewan.
“But her skill with weapons—”
“She has been purposefully trained. I have nay doubt of that. And she has been trained weel.”
“Why would someone train a lass to fight?”
“I can think of many reasons. Mayhap a dangerous shortage of fighting men, mayhap she comes from a place where battles are frequent, danger all round, or mayhap she was reared mostly by men who didnae ken how else to deal with her. I favor the latter. She moves about in the lad’s clothing as if she is accustomed to such attire.”
Gregor watched Fiona closely for a moment and nodded. “Aye, she does. She e’en moves more as a lad does than a lass.”
“She also shows little fear about being amongst us, a lone woman amongst a dozen men.”
“Oh. Mayhap she is no maid, is accustomed to men in all ways.”
“Ye sound so certain of that.”
“As certain as I can be. I make my judgment based upon how she acts.” And, he reluctantly admitted to himself, because he felt a strange, but fierce, loathing of the possibility that Fiona had been touched by any man, let alone many. “She has faced us with weapons, burned our ears with insults, and tries to thwart our plan to ransom her by simply refusing to tell us her full name or where she comes from. There has been nay one small attempt to flirt with any of us, to use any feminine wiles. And look ye at how besotted our Simon is, yet she makes no use of that weak spot in our ranks. There isnae e’en the hint of seduction in her actions.”
“Ah, aye. She appears to treat him as a younger brother or the like.” Gregor smiled faintly. “Tis fair certain that is why Simon is so enthralled. Shy and virginal is our Simon. A few maids at Scarglas have sought to catch his eye, but he is proving verra skittish. I was thinking I should take him to a whore soon who will teach the lad a thing or two.”
Ewan thought of the time his father had thrust him into a woman’s bed, insisting it was time he became a man. He had been fifteen, tall and bone thin, and painfully shy. He had also already begun to be appalled by his father’s apparent attempt to breed his own clan, keeping his current wife and far too many other women pregnant year after year. Ewan shuddered at the memory of the night he had lost his virginity. It had been a night full of failures, embarrassments, and awkwardness, all performed in the arms of a hard-eyed woman who outweighed him by at least five stone and badly needed a bath.
“Nay,” he said sharply and pretended not to see Gregor’s look of surprise. “Leave the lad be. He will take that step when he is ready and ’tis best done that way.”
Gregor shrugged. “As ye wish. It just seemed to me that he was a wee bit slow to get the itch.”
“I am sure he gets the itch, but ’tis best if we let him choose his own time to scratch it.” He studied Simon, who reminded him a great deal of himself at that age. “He probably just needs to get beyond seeing himself as naught but sharp bones and a pair of too big feet.”
“Is that how ye felt?” Gregor just smiled when Ewan scowled at him.
“Nay all of us are blessed with your confidence and bonnie face.”
“Thank ye for nay saying vanity.”
“Ye are welcome. Of course, ye might consider resting your parts now and again ere ye wear them out.” He almost smiled when Gregor cast a startled glance at his groin, then glared at him.
“We cannae all be the monk ye are,” Gregor grumbled.
“I am nay a monk,” Ewan snapped.
Gregor rolled his eyes. “Bedding a woman once a year is monkish. I dinnae ken how ye can do it.”
“Tis called restraint. Tis better than breeding a bushel of bastards.”
“I only have two. We have all tried to do as ye have asked. A mon has needs, however, and we dinnae all have your strength. Some of us cannae help but wonder if that restraint is why ye are so dark of humor.”
Ewan sighed and shook his head. It was an old argument. It was difficult to teach restraint when the patriarch of the clan showed none. The fact that Scarglas had far too many women within its walls who were free with their favors did not help, either. He had had some success since wresting the laird’s seat from his father five years ago, but not as much as he would have liked. Ewan looked at Fiona and could not stop himself from wondering what she would think of Scarglas and its people.
“Mayhap that lass will give the lad confidence,” murmured Gregor. “If Simon can learn to be at ease with a lass as fair as that one, he may gain some ease with others. Weel, if that lass will be staying with us for a while.”
“Oh, I think she will be our guest for a long while, unless ye can think of a way to get her to tell us exactly who she is.”
“Ye could always try to seduce the truth out of her. Where are ye going?” Gregor asked when, after one furious glare, Ewan started to stride off into the woods.
“Hunting,” Ewan replied. “Better I try to kill some beastie and put meat on our table than run my sword through ye. I might just start to regret that in a year or two.”
It did not surprise Ewan when he soon heard Gregor trailing him. The dangers surrounding him and his family meant that he was never allowed to go off on his own. He also knew he would do no hunting, would only catch something if it was unfortunate enough to stumble across his path. It annoyed him to admit it, even if only to himself, but he was trying to escape the temptation of Gregor’s suggestion.
Seduce a woman as beautiful as Fiona? It was laughable, or would be if it did not stir up so many thoughts and feelings he was trying so hard to bury deep within himself. He was a big man, dark of looks and nature. Fiona was all sunlight, beautiful, spirited, and so very alive. She was so far above his touch, it was almost dizzying to look at her.
Only hours in her company and he was already fighting a craving for what he knew he could never have. Somehow he was going to have to find out who she was, ransom her, and get her out of his life before he succumbed to his desires, tried to reach for her, and made an utter fool of himself.
“Where did a weelborn lass learn to cook so weel?” asked Simon, taking a deep, appreciative sniff of the rabbit stew Fiona was making.
“Now, why would ye think me weelborn?” Fiona asked as she stirred the stew, wondering if it would be enough for so many people. She had two full pots bubbling over the two fires Simon had made, but twelve men could probably devour it in minutes.
“Ye may nay be dressed as a lady or act much like one, but I ken ye are one. Your clothes and weapons, e’en your mount, are those of a weelborn lass or lad. Ye e’en speak verra weel. And”—Simon blushed—“ye are clean and smell verra nice.”
“Ah, weel, aye, I am weelborn, but the first years of my life were spent living like the poorest crofter.” She tossed the wild onions one of the men had gathered into the stew, and smiled at Simon, who obviously expected a tale now. “For too many years our clan and two others tore each other apart. Finally, there came a time when there was naught left but rubble, burned fields, slaughtered livestock, widows, and orphans. We who survived the last battle which killed the lairds and too many of the grown men rose up from the destruction and swore that it would end on that day. No more feuding, killing, raiding, and all of that. And so it was. Howbeit, for many years, survival and rebuilding took all our few resources. All of us, from the poorest to the laird himself, turned a hand to whate’er work needed doing.”
“Is that why ye were taught to fight?”
“Aye, although, praise God, the peace held and there was little of that. Howbeit, we were so weakened, we would have been easy prey for anyone. It was a hard life, verra hard, yet I can see that some good came of it. We all have gained a wide array of skills, and I believe we are, weel, closer than others. We no longer have to fight each day just to survive, but we ken we can do so if we must, and we ken that every mon, woman, and child in the clan can do the same, willingly and skillfully. Tis a good thing.”
“Aye,” agreed Simon. “Yet, ye must have a laird, aye? One who stands above the others?”
the others, aye. But because of what we suffered, everyone is certain our laird will, if necessary, work side by side with his people, whether tilling a field or thatching a roof. They also ken that he will ne’er fill his belly whilst they hunger or sit warm in his great hall whilst they shiver in the cold. There is also the rather comforting knowledge that their laird willnae thrust them into war at the slightest hint of insult, that he willnae allow pride to stop him from trying to reach some compromise or less bloody solution. That, too, is most comforting.”
“Twould be nice. Our old laird fights with everyone, or did. Five years ago Ewan took o’er as laird, and he works mightily to make alliances. Tisnae going weel. Our father made some hard enemies.”
“Oh, ye are Sir Ewan’s brother, too?”
“Half-brother. Bastard born. There are a lot of us. Near three dozen at last counting.”
And what could one say to that? mused Fiona. Since her brother Diarmot had five
bastard children, it would seem somewhat hypocritical to condemn such a thing. Yet, the old laird seemed to have gone a bit too far. Such rampant profligacy was probably one reason Sir Ewan was now the laird. That and the hint Simon gave that the old laird had a true skill at offending people, thus leaving his clan surrounded by enemies. Fiona wondered just what sort of place she was being taken to.
For a brief moment, she considered telling Sir Ewan exactly who she was so that she could be quickly ransomed and returned to Deilcladach. Then she inwardly shook her head. Her clan was not so rich it could afford its coffers being emptied because she had been fool enough to get lost and captured. Her family would worry about her, but there was no way she could let them know she was all right without exposing them to what could be some rather exhorbitant ransom demands. There was, actually, one small advantage to the difficulty she now found herself in, although she felt a little guilty for even considering it. Menzies would not find her, could not possibly know where she was. For a little while, she decided, she would be selfish and enjoy that fact.
Declaring the meal ready, Fiona took her share and forced Simon to take his as well. Sir Ewan and Gregor were just walking back into the camp when she told the men they could eat. She quickly moved out of the way, sitting with her back against a tree. She smiled her thanks to Simon when he slipped up next to her and gave her a chunk of bread.
“Your laird travels weel supplied,” she murmured.
“Ah, weel, this bread was given us by two sisters who were quite taken with our Gregor,” said Simon. “The lasses do like our Gregor.” Simon shook his head. “He has two bastards, ye ken. Tis a mon’s way, but it troubles me. It marks a lad. Tis a mark ye can ne’er be rid of. It marks the lass who bears the bairns, as weel.”
Fiona nodded. “It does, true enough. I have a brother who has five bastards, although he may nay be the father of them all. The women said he was when they left the bairns at his door and he accepted them. He is a verra fortunate mon for his new wife has also accepted them.”
“Och, that is fine. My mother found herself a husband, but he didnae want me about, so Ewan took me in. I was just a wee bairn, only three years, and wasnae any use to the mon. Just another mouth to feed, ye ken. Twas for the best. If he had kept me, I would be struggling to make a crop grow in poor land or trying to keep a few beasties alive to sell for a pittance. Instead, I am being trained as a warrior.”
It was not easy, but Fiona murmured an agreement. Fiona would never allow him to see the strong surge of pity she felt for him. It was born of the thought of a small fatherless boy tossed aside by his own mother. Simon was right to say he had a better life than he might have had otherwise. She also suspected he had found acceptance, perhaps even a rough affection, amongst his half-brothers and the others. There had to be some scars upon the boy’s soul, but his sweet, shy nature made her believe that they were not deep ones. Simon had survived and was thriving. That was, in the end, the most important thing.
She was distracted from her thoughts on Simon’s sad beginnings by the other men. One by one, they dropped their emptied plates in front of her. Fiona supposed those grunts they made as they did so were intended as thanks or compliments. It was clear that they expected her to clean up after them. That was irritating, but not unexpected. The look of amusement upon Sir Ewan’s face, however, acted upon her temper as stinging
nettles did upon her skin. Only Simon’s quick offer to help saved the man from having his ears vigorously clouted. Grumbling under her breath, she worked with Simon to clean up after the meal she had been ordered to cook.
“What are ye about?” Ewan asked Gregor when his brother carefully studied his back as they walked away from Fiona and Simon.
“Looking for the daggers,” Gregor drawled, and grinned.
Ewan briefly smiled. “Tis indeed fortunate I found all her knives. I suspect I owe Simon a boon for speaking up so quickly and saving me from a sound thrashing.” He chuckled and felt almost as surprised as Gregor looked.
“Ye find her looking as if she wants to gut ye amusing?”
“Aye. Tis a clean, clear anger. Much like a mon’s or a lad’s. I can see it and, I suspicion, soon I will be able to tell what will stir it. That could prove helpful.”
Gregor nodded. “Ye might be able to get her to spill out a few truths if ye get her into a rage.”