Scottish Highlands, 1516
They brought the man into the tent on a makeshift stretcher, bound and unconscious. A hunting plaid of muted earth tones draped over his broad chest and across one muscular shoulder, where it fastened to his tunic with a simple brass pin. Quartz crystals decorated the open ends of a braided gold torc at his throat. That fact alone, that jewelry remained on his person, told Aileana that he was being accorded special treatment, not robbed like the common soldiers fallen on the field of battle. He would be a warrior, probably a laird, of the clan that Colbridge fought today.
She nodded for the stretcher bearers, two of Colbridge’s strongest men, to put their burden down on the long table she used for her surgery. As her assistant Ranald limped in behind them, she saw guards standing just outside the tent’s entrance and wondered how strenuously her new patient had objected to his captivity.
Ranald stood by the entry but his gaze stayed on the man on the table until the stretcher bearers left. “He’s a chief.”
Those few words explained both the man’s presence here and his appearance. A valuable prize indeed, deliberately captured rather than killed. No small feat in the heat of hand-to-hand combat where killing came easy. Capture was not. Impressed, Aileana bent to determine the extent of his injuries.
“Make sure he lives,” Ranald cautioned. “Colbridge brought this one to us during the battle.”
Aileana straightened up and frowned in surprise toward the entry, but Ranald had already left her alone with her patient. She turned her attention back to the man on her table. He was another victim of Colbridge’s ambitions. Like her. And like her, one with no chance of escape.
His soft linen tunic and leather breeches were of better quality than she’d seen on the other captives. Blood matted his shoulder-length dark hair and streaked both the side of his face and one strong arm revealed by a torn sleeve. She needed to remove the tunic and the torc around his neck to be certain his wounds were clean. But she did not want to turn him yet and possibly worsen other hurts she could not yet see. The strap that secured a sword’s sheath lay buckled across his chest. The weapon itself was missing. Aileana supposed that one of Colbridge’s men had claimed it, or even Colbridge himself.
Carefully, she undid that clasp and the one at his belt, and let the heavy leather and the end of the plaid fall aside to dangle off of the table out of the way. Next went the simple pin at his shoulder. Only then did she notice the pattern of his plaid. It appeared similar to the one most of the rest of the captives wore, but not exactly the same. She did not know enough about Highland clans to know what that meant. She laid it aside. With regret, she took her looted French scissors Colbridge had given her from the pocket of her dress and began cutting the tunic from the man’s upper body.
After each snip of the blades, she lightly touched each area she revealed and let an awareness form in her mind and within her body, focusing on the soundness of each part beneath his summer-bronzed skin and firm flesh. She laid one palm against his chest, feeling the strength of the heart that beat within, the rise and fall of his breathing. She slid her hand down his ribs onto his belly. Strong muscles there, and no harm done. She moved to his arm next, relieved to find the cut moderate. His arm would be sore from a grazing blow by the flat of a blade that had left a gash, and be lucky to be no worse for the battle. It took little of her Gift to mend such a shallow wound. The Healing tingled as her fingers traced the edges of the cut. He would recover to fight again if the head wound had not addled his brain—and if Colbridge let him live.
She moved to his head and took a deep breath, gathering her strength for what could be a very difficult mending. He had escaped death so far, but the blow to his head might have destroyed his mind. Or only part of it. Her fingers clenched. The empty ones were the worst. But the need was strong in her to repair and restore—to heal. She could not stop now any more than she could stop breathing.
She slowly placed her hands along both sides of his face, then drew them up over his forehead into his hair, listening. The force of will that she encountered nearly sent her reeling. Relieved, she gently cradled his head and slid her hands to the back of his neck. Other than a shallow cut at the back of his scalp from the blow that had knocked him out, she could sense no deeper bleeding that would threaten his life or his mind. She mended the broken skin with a few gentle touches, glad that he had taken no further harm. He would awaken soon, with a massive headache. She would soothe that away when he could speak to her and she confirmed that his mind was whole.
She stood back and for the first time really looked at the man. What she saw took her breath away. Strong of limb and clean-lined, he boasted the massive shoulders and arms of a warrior. Despite the bindings that held them together palm to palm, she could see that his hands were large and calloused, probably from wielding one of the heavy longswords—claymores they called them here—as well as other hard work. Fine, dark hair swirled lightly across his heavily muscled chest and trailed down his flat belly to disappear beneath the leather trews that covered narrow hips and muscular thighs. A strong pulse beat in the brown column of his throat. And his face, under the blood and grime of battle, boasted even features: the nose unbroken, lips full, and eyelashes long and dark where they rested on high cheekbones.
As she regarded him, she fought the urge to caress his face with her fingertips. Tiny laugh lines around his eyes and mouth betrayed the only trace of the person within. For a moment, she allowed herself to imagine his smile. Her Talent did not help her with that. Though she often wished it would show her the past or the future, it persisted in showing her only the now and the needs of her patients, no more. Until he awoke, she would not know the color of his eyes, nor the temper of the spirit that dwelled within his massive body. She moved to her chair and sat down to wait.
Toran became aware of his surroundings slowly. First came the pounding in his head, painful evidence that he was not dead after all. He should be glad, he supposed, and would be when the infernal hammering stopped. Then he realized that his hands and feet were bound. He was a prisoner? How the devil had he allowed that to happen? His nostrils flared and he fought to remain still in case someone watched. Try as he might, he could not remember. His head hurt too much to concentrate. Instead, he kept his eyes closed, and listened intently for any sound that would give away the presence of a guard. The faint whisper of soft breathing told him someone else waited nearby. Distant shouts and clangs pierced the silence. Did a battle still rage?
What had happened to the two men who’d come with him to meet with the MacAnalen laird? Had they escaped, or were they dead on the field of battle?
He carefully tested the strength of his bonds and found them damnably sufficient to restrain him, at least for now. Focusing inside himself to gingerly catalog other aches, he tried to recall the last moments of the battle that brought him here. The usual residue of physical violence remained in the arms, shoulders, back, and legs, all of which were old companions, and none of which brought back any particular memories of the fight. Suddenly, he noticed cool air on his skin, skin that should not have been bare to any breeze. For a brief moment, he hoped he was wrong about being a prisoner. If he’d been stripped and left for dead on the battlefield…but nay. If that were true he wouldn’t be bound.
A soft cough startled him and his eyes flew open. He was surprised to see rough-spun cloth peaking over him, blocking the anticipated view of the sky. He turned his head slowly against the pain to survey the rest of his surroundings and saw a lass dozing in a chair set against the wall of the tent.
Only a lass to guard him? Was he injured worse than he kenned, then? Nay, none of the all too familiar pain that came with serious wounds plagued him, thankfully, except the damnable throbbing that threatened to split his skull. So he gathered his strength and pushed up to sitting. The tatters of his shirt fell away from his back, leaving him bare from the waist up. Dizzy fairies whirled in a mad dance before his eyes, then settled and disappeared as he pulled in a deep breath and bit back a curse.
He turned carefully and looked around the tent. One entry, flap askew just enough to show a sliver of trees, sky, and movement when anyone walked past, but not to allow anyone outside to see within. He sat on a table crisscrossed by his plaid, and by his belt and his claymore strap, which must have been unbuckled to allow his shirt to be cut from his body. He groped frantically at his throat as another thought occurred to him. A relieved breath gusted from his lips. The Lathan torc remained around his neck. That his claymore was missing failed to surprise him. He reached into his boot. His dirk…ach, gone, too. Damn. Injured, without weapons, and in a strange camp. He’d seen better days.
The only other furniture was the chair occupied by the bonny lass. Even in his present condition, he could appreciate her beauty. Auburn hair fell in a thick braid over her shoulder onto the nicely curved breast of her deep green dress. Slumped in her doze, he could not be sure, but she seemed tall and slender. Her face was fair, with smooth skin and full lips. Toran wondered why she alone attended him, why there were no guards in the tent, and why he was restrained so lightly by leather cords instead of chains. In time, he could weaken and break bonds such as these. Did they think him so enfeebled by battle wounds that a mere lass could hold him? He didn’t ken whether to be insulted or embarrassed. But the question remained. What had happened to him and why didn’t he remember? Why was he here and not dead on the battlefield?
He needed to get a look outside. If he could move quietly enough so as not to wake the lass, he could peer out the tent flap. His boots were lashed together with enough slack between them to hobble him, but not to prevent him from walking in some limited fashion. He considered trying to remove them, but the bindings around his ankles were too tight, and even if he got the boots off, he didn’t want to lose them. He wouldn’t get far on bare feet, so he’d have to find a way to cut the cord between them. First things first. He started to stand, teeth clenched against the throbbing pain that movement caused. But the table creaked as he gained his feet. The lass stirred, then blinked, and with dismay plain on her face, noted his position, half on, half off the table.
“Oh! You shouldn’t be awake,” she said, smoothing her dress as she stood and moving quickly to the tent’s entry flap and peering out. Did she mean to leave or call the guards? He didn’t want her to do either.
“Wait,” he said, wincing. “I won’t hurt ye. I want to look outside.” He hoped his warning would allay any fears she might have. He kept his gaze on the entry as he stood the rest of the way up and hobbled carefully forward. He didn’t want to seem threatening by staring at her, though she was worth gazing upon. As he approached, she stepped back. He pulled the flap a finger’s width aside and peered out. Aye, he was held in the invader’s camp, and things had not gone well for the MacAnalens. Judging by the few wearing MacAnalen colors that he could see, they, too, were bound in leathers, and talking to others beyond Toran’s line of sight. And those were the guards, he supposed, facing this tent, sitting by a small fire. He could see plenty of men around similar fires within view. Too many. And a few more practicing at arms. Even a brief glance was enough to show him that he’d not walk out of here easily on his own. He hoped that a lot of MacAnalens survived. The more there were, the better the distraction whenever his own men arrived to free him, and the better all their odds of getting away.
He sighed and turned back to the lass, who stood quietly by as he peered out of the tent. As he faced her, she backed up a step, but only one. It puzzled him that being left alone with a strange man seemed to cause her so little concern for her own safety. She was no match for him, even with him injured, bound, and weaponless, but she neither called for help, nor tried to escape the confines of the tent. Instead, he saw with pleasure, she stood tall and proud.
If she was meant as a serving wench for an important prisoner, he might yet enjoy this captivity.
“Now that your curiosity is satisfied, you should not be on your feet,” she said as she pulled him away from the entry toward the table. He nearly stumbled in the fetters, but her grip held firm, and he stayed upright. At the table, she urged him gently to sit, and then more forcefully said, “Lie down.” He moved to obey before he could consider objecting. Her voice held a tone of command that he found he could not ignore. He lay back, puzzled. As he did, the pounding in his temples reached a new crescendo, preventing rational thought. He tried to stifle the groan, but it escaped. “Damn,” he growled, lifting his bound wrists to his throbbing forhead.
“Ah, your head,” she said, moving to the top of the table and leaning over him to push his arms down. With that nearness, her scent floated over him, softly pleasing, and something more…much more. His groin tightened in response. “This will help,” she said and straightened, taking her scent with her.
He could not see what she did, but her fingertips whispered across the skin of his forehead to ruffle his hair, and the pounding receded.
“You took quite a blow,” she said quietly. “’Tis a good thing you have a thick skull.”
He could hear amusement in her voice, but felt none of his own, only relief. The pain continued to recede as her hands stroked gently over his forehead and down the sides of his face. Tension he was not aware of holding ebbed, and he sighed deeply.
“Who are ye?” he asked, feeling more and more at ease and drowsy as she continued, the pain blessedly fading away. “How can ye do that?”
“I should be asking the questions, don’t you think?” Her voice projected calm reason, as if she was discussing nothing of importance. But she delivered her next question with more emphasis. “Who are you?”
“I am called Toran,” he heard himself say, biting his tongue before he said the rest of his name. What was she doing to him?
“And you do not belong to this clan Colbridge fought today, do you?” she asked. “Your tartan is different than the ones the other prisoners wear.”
Damn. Confusion and dismay washed over him and he reached for an answer that would satisfy the lass. He was in great danger here, bound and without his weapons in an enemy camp, but it would be worse if she found who he really was and told her leader. He’d fought with the MacAnalens, so the invaders probably believed he belonged with them, at least until she of the sharp eyes and soft hands noted the small differences in the tartan he wore.
“Aye,” he improvised. “My clan is related.”
“And you’re a chief?” she asked, seeming to accept his evasion. She continued to stroke his neck and shoulders, her fingers brushing over his torc, and Toran’s strange lassitude deepened, but not enough to halt his tongue.
“Aye,” Toran admitted after struggling not to speak, his voice sounding curiously distant to his ears. He tried to clench his jaw shut, but found that he couldn’t do it with her hands so warmly soothing on his skin. “Clan Lathan,” slipped out before he was even aware he was about to speak. He groaned his dismay and tried to clamp his lips between his teeth, but numbness stole his ability to compress them. Was she a witch, then, he mused dreamily, to pull answers from him even when he did not wish to give them?
“Ah, well then; that is why Colbridge wanted you,” he heard her murmur to herself as he slipped into a warm, blessedly pain-free sleep.
Gar Colbridge stood on the edge of the field of battle and looked around him with grim satisfaction. In the waning sunlight, the bodies of his enemies lay strewn like so much chaff across the landscape. A few of his men and some of the camp women picked through them, stripping useable clothing and searching for weapons and other valuables. Those, he knew, would be few and far between in this poor countryside.
“A good day, all in all,” his master-of-arms remarked, dropping his reins and dismounting next to his commander’s horse.
“Aye,” Colbridge answered, giving a nod to the sturdily built man beside him who had, under his guidance, molded a ragtag band of reivers into a passably capable fighting force. “We’ve achieved what we meant to do this day, and reaped a bonus, too…the MacAnalen chief, alive.”
He relished the moment, in the heat of the battle, when he’d recognized the clan leader. He had noticed the man’s torc a moment before striking and turned his blow to disable rather than kill. Odd that none of the laird’s men were nearby to defend him, but luck, it appeared, was in Colbridge’s favor this day. The tides of battle must have swirled them away, leaving him the element of surprise.
A clan leader, even an inexperienced one, as most were these days, would be a valuable source of information about his own holdings, and those of his neighbors. Colbridge congratulated himself on his forbearance. “Aileana’s tending him,” he continued. “Once he’s awake and talking, I’ll have what I need from him, and then be done with him. Scotland lost many lairds at Flodden three years ago; one more won’t matter.”
He noticed a man roaming alone among the bodies, stooping now and again to examine one but taking nothing.
“Who’s that? Ah, of course, Aileana’s man, Ranald. He’ll be looking for live ones, then, as if there are any worth keeping.”
The wounded clansmen did not have the value of their laird, but some of them made acceptable additions to his army. Once their clan was broken, they had little choice but to join him or die. Many were so grateful for life and health after suffering grievous wounds that they took little convincing, especially the ones only Aileana could heal. Her abilities saved many when their wounds were beyond the care of the lesser healers.
She had talent, that one, and the Sight. While he had never yet been seriously injured in battle, with her considerable skills on his side, he believed that his conquest could not be stopped by the blows he might take in the future. That made him fearless, and feared. Word of his prowess traveled ahead of his army, so that a few clans surrendered rather than fight, and gained his protection. Not all. Not the MacAnalens today. They paid the price of defiance. Their dead lay before him. The rest were prisoners whose fate would be decided by the choices they made. Their women, children, and old ones huddled in their village, begging for mercy. He would give it. He had more important matters to attend to than his new subjects.
His companion’s expression turned grim. “There were observers on the ridge early this day,” he said.
Colbridge nodded with satisfaction. When the observers reported back, their unknown laird would have an advantage, but only briefly. “They’ll know we’re here, and in what strength,” he said. He grabbed the reins and pulled his horse’s head down, preparing to mount. “They hung back to assess the enemy rather than rushing in to defend another’s turf. Just as I would have done.” He considered his next moves and swung onto his horse. The observers would carry word of his prowess to the neighboring clans and villages. That was good, if they chose the wise course and surrendered to him. If not, well, he must find the observers’ clan and destroy their ability to fight, or they’d be a viper at his back when he turned south.
“Get the men together,” he ordered. “Send out scouting parties now and again at first light. Find the ones who watched, assess their strengths, and report back.” His underling started to object, but Colbridge shouted over him, “We have no time to waste picking over the bodies of peat cutters and crofters. Go!”
His sense of satisfaction returned as he watched the man hurry to obey. A lightning strike and all would be over here in the north for the year. He would spend the winter at his keep in the south. It would be done.
Toran came awake to the sound of men moving around outside the tent. Damn, whatever the healer had done to him had put him to sleep. He needed to stay awake if he was going to get out of here.
He listened intently, barely breathing, until the footsteps moved away. Just the guards changing, then?
Nay. He breathed a sigh of relief as he heard horses moving away from camp. A patrol going out. For one bad moment, he’d feared that they’d come for him. It was still black as pitch but it must be getting on toward morning. Their leader would not leave him here indefinitely.
He glanced around the tent. The interior was barely visible, but he could tell that the healer’s chair was empty. Nor did she stand by the doorway. Where had she gone? Did she have somewhere else to sleep?
No matter. This was just the opportunity he needed. He sat up carefully, determined not to make any noise that would draw a guard. He stretched his bound hands over his head to wake up his arm and shoulder muscles, then began to twist and pull at the leather binding his hands together. If he could loosen the bonds, get even one had free, he’d have the use of his hands and arms and have a fighting chance. Though whether he could get free of a camp full of armed men, he had no idea. But if he could get these bonds off while it was still dark, he might manage to escape into the forest and make his way back to the Aerie. Or meet his people coming to look for him.
He worked for what seemed like hours, ignoring the pain and the dampness. The tough old leather was tearing the skin of his wrists and the abrasions bled. But if his blood softened the leather, it might stretch faster. He kept tugging, stopping every once in a while to rest his wrists and worry at the leather with his teeth. It was slow going. Painful. And bloody. But it was the best chance he had unless the healer came back with whatever she’d used to cut away his shirt.
Twice he was forced to stop and lie back as footsteps neared the tent he was in, but they passed on. He kept at it until warm wetness started to run down his arm. Even with the added slip of his own blood and saliva, he could not pull a hand through the loops. His wrists were raw and the bindings were still too tight. He had to stop before he did so much damage that he’d be unable to use his hands at all.
Resigned, he rested. Surely the healer would be back to check on her patient. Perhaps this time she’d bring a blade. He could wait for her to arrive.
Dawn had brightened the mists an hour earlier, and Aileana heard men on horseback leaving the camp soon after. Rather than get up, she claimed the luxury of dozing a while longer, taking advantage of the relative quiet that followed their departure.
At rest in her solitary blankets, she recalled Toran’s efforts to resist her questions, something no one before had been able to do. That worried her. Worse, she’d been a fool, dozing off instead of keeping watch over him. There was no question in her mind that even bound, he was fully capable of injuring or killing her before she could say a word to him or could scream for the guards. But he had not harmed her.
Instead, he’d focused on learning more about his enemy, as any warrior would do. She’d held herself still, but had fought back tears as he’d peered out of the tent for the first time and seen what he was up against. No escape. She used to dream of it, of finding a crofter who would shelter her, or disappearing into woods too thick for Coldbridge’s men to pursue her, anything that would lead to returning to what remained of her village. However, after the first summer passed and winter threatened, she became resigned to her fate. As Toran would.
He appealed to her in a way that was new to her, pleasurable yet also a little frightening. As a healer, and a daughter and granddaughter of healers, she knew what happened between a man and a woman, but she’d never experienced it herself. She turned and punched the bag of rags that served as her pillow, trying to achieve some comfort. And, if she were to be honest, trying to distract herself from the memory of his handsome face, his strong body that so pleased her eye, his… Oh, damn. This was hopeless. She might as well get up.
It would be wise to check on her patient before he awoke. There would be less temptation that way, on her side and his, assuming that a handsome laird such as he would have any interest in a simple lass from a small village such as she. All the more reason to control her wild imaginings, check on her patient, and see him taken out with the other prisoners. Then she could soon forget him. Breakfast would have to wait until she finished doing all that.
As expected, Toran still slept when Aileana slipped softly into the Healer’s tent and paused by the entrance. He lay on his side, facing the doorway. The deep blue eyes she’d admired yesterday were closed, his head pillowed on his bound hands. Her newfound resolve crumbled as she watched his chest move with his breath, and she wondered what it would be like to remove his bonds and feel his arms wrap protectively around her. Except to take her arm and hurry her along, no one ever touched her. Not even Ranald dared more than that.
Aileana shuddered to think what Ranald would make of her interest in her present patient if he knew. Ranald was the son of her father’s first wife. Despite being only a handful of years her senior, silver glittered in the dark hair at his temples, giving him an appearance of experience and wisdom. Since he had been fostered away after his mother died, Aileana rarely saw him while she was growing up in the village. She’d been shocked to find him attached to Colbridge’s army. His battles were fought before she encountered him, including the one that nearly cost him his leg. To keep himself alive and of value, he’d been using the simple treatment skills he’d learned from her mother during his rare visits to his father. She’d recognized him immediately, and they had protected each other since. She made it clear he was useful to her and he made it clear she was off limits. In fact, it had been Ranald who had started the tale that her Healing was tied to her maidenhood. He would be concerned about her interest in this patient, this Toran, Laird Lathan. Ranald would think her a silly girl, indeed, to risk everything that had kept her safe so far.
Aileana moved silently to Toran’s side and raised her hands over him, intending to monitor the beat of his heart and the depth of his breathing.
Instead, he rolled to sitting, jerked her off her feet and hauled her against his bare chest within the circle of his bound arms. “Look what I’ve caught,” he murmured. “The healer. What are ye doing here alone? Where are the guards?”
“Outside,” she gasped, answering his last question first, since it only required one word and she didn’t have breath for more at that moment. “I’ve come to…to see how you fare,” Aileana stammered, still breathing heavily from the surprise and the exertion of struggling within the circle of his impossible strength. She’d wished for his arms around her, and here she found herself. She wrenched her attention back to the very real man in front of her. She kept her voice low, not wanting the guard to overhear, rush in, and attack. Not yet, anyway. If need be, she could scream. “I did not mean to wake you, only to see if you were recovered.”
“And ye would know that merely by watching me sleep?”
Aileana could see he was wide awake now, and studying her intently as he held her. That regard gave her pause. How to answer him? She was a Healer, not a witch, but an ignorant Highlander might not know the difference, even if that ignorant Highlander was a laird. She’d heard they burned and drowned witches in the south. She had no intention of meeting either fate.
“By your breathing, and repose,” she finally answered. “If you were still in pain, you might have slept fitfully, or not at all. But I see that you are rested and well recovered.”
“Recovered?” One eyebrow lifted, as if he didn’t recall being wounded, and didn’t know what she meant. That gave her a bit of confidence that he wasn’t completely resistant to her will.
“I believe I am,” he continued, studying her face. He gave her a small smile. “I suppose ye want me to put ye down.” His regard never wavered, but his tone softened and his vise-like grip on her relaxed as he leaned forward and set her on her feet.
“Aye.” She’d replied with the only proper thing to say. Although, her body reveled in the sensation of his arms around her, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be released. Had she lost her mind? She chided herself again for her foolish fantasies. It was one thing to imagine herself in the arms of the man as he slept, and quite another to consider it when he was wide-awake and looking at her in that…way. Oh, but he tempted her beyond reason, with his deep blue eyes drinking her in; his full lips, now slightly parted as if he contemplated kissing her senseless. Senseless she was to even be imagining it.
He lifted his arms, releasing her, but as she stepped back, he reached out and cupped her face with warm fingers. She gasped at the sudden sensations that gentle touch evoked, so different from the effortless strength he had used to lift and restrain her. The heat from his fingers on her face nearly burned her, yet chills skittered down her neck, across her shoulders, and she fought the urge to lift her fingers to his lips in turn.
“Ye’re a bonny lass…” he whispered.
Her shiver of anticipation surprised her, and she firmly stifled it. Instead of giving in to the yearning to feel his warm skin under her fingers, she stepped back out of his reach.
“Don’t…you can’t…touch me,” she breathed, still fighting the power of her desire to hold the warmth of his face in her palm.
“But lass, I already did,” he said, looking her up and down and grinning, but making no move toward her.
A small, mirthless chuckle escaped Aileana. Aye, he had. It had all happened so fast, and she’d been so lost in her own sensations that she’d protested too late.
From the dubious safety of her position a step away from him, she studied him. He seemed well enough to go out with the other prisoners. He could not languish here in the Healer’s tent. She might soon have others to care for. Then she noticed the skin of his wrists around his bindings. Red, raw, oozing blood in a few places. He’d tried his bonds, but hadn’t succeeded in breaking them. Not yet.
“That must hurt,” she said, stepping forward to take his wrists in her hands.
He didn’t answer, merely shook his head, eyeing her.
“Not much,” he finally relented, shrugging his big shoulders.
Should she leave the wounds alone, and let the pain deter him from straining further against his bonds? Or heal his wounds and hope he’d have better sense? No, of course he would not. He would continue to try to escape. As, she supposed, he thought he should.
Her hands moved almost of their own accord, and her healing energy flowed into the skin she touched. After only a moment he jerked away, long before she finished.
“What are ye doin’?” he demanded.
She let him go. It was foolish, even dangerous, to try to continue. Wide-awake, he could sense something happening where she touched him. Her compulsion to heal would get her killed yet.
“Ye did something to take away the ache and make me sleep.” He rubbed his forehead, eyes closed, frowning, as he tried to remember. His words froze her in place, and she knew she must divert him, or he might just stop wondering who and begin to wonder what he was dealing with. His next statement frightened her even more. “And while ye did, ye asked who I am, and I told ye, though it pained me to do it.”
Remembering the Healing was one thing, but he should not be able to remember her laying the compulsion to speak upon him! “Your pain resulted from a blow by the flat of a blade to your thick skull,” she replied tersely, more worried than she dared show. She struggled not to cross her arms defensively across her chest.
There was danger in this man, many kinds of danger. How could he resist her will, while ensnaring hers so that she took chances like this? What was she thinking? The sooner she got away from him, the better. “It’s your good luck that your head’s still attached to your neck,” she continued in the same curt tone, still trying to divert him from his memory of the day before. If she could distract him, perhaps it would fade away, as it should have before he awoke, and she would be able to convince him it had been a dream.
He did seem distracted, Aileana thought as he frowned and fingered the torc at his throat.
He stood then and moved carefully around her, hobbled by the fetters, but giving her room enough so as not to feel threatened. He shuffled to the tent’s entry and peered out through the narrow slit. “How long have I been here?” he asked.
Aileana breathed a sigh of relief as he changed his focus from her to his situation. “You were injured yesterday in the battle with the local clan.”
“Yesterday,” he said, and sounded relieved, as if he feared he’d been here longer. “Yesterday, ye stood by as I looked outside. Why did ye not run from the tent or scream for the guards?”
“Because I deemed it better to allow you to satisfy your curiosity, so you would know you are outnumbered and cannot escape.”
“Ye must have a name. What are ye called? And why are ye here with this army?” He turned away from the entry to pin her in place with his gaze.
There was no help for it. She’d taken his identity; now he wanted hers.
“Aileana. Aileana Shaw. Or Healer.”
“Ach, from the low country, are ye?”
“Aye. Colbridge destroyed my village. My family died. A woman alone, I had nowhere else to go. So I’m the Healer.” She should have said “his healer” but she knew if she phrased it that way, any chance of Toran trusting her would disappear. She wanted him to trust her. But why?
“How long ago did that happen?”
“Summer, two years gone.”
“The summer after the massacre at Flodden Field, aye?”
Aileana shook her head. “Flodden Field?”
“Surely ye heard of it? James IV died along with most of his nobles and lairds at the hands of the Sassenach…the English. ’Tis why there’s a bairn on the Scottish throne.”
“Oh, aye. I’ve heard Colbridge say that the Highland clans have been ripe for the picking with none left but women and children. That must be why.”
Quiet settled into the tent, but the peace was illusory. Aileana had seen the result of the events Toran described. Wherever Colbridge went, Highlanders joined with him or died. So far, he had taken many lives, warriors and innocents alike. She feared the struggle would leave them all too weak to repel the English who harried the borders from the south.
The wind had begun to shift out of the north, a bad sign. This summer, Colbridge’s army had cut a swath into the Highland mountains, but winter threatened in the chilly mists and the mellowing color in the leaves. Colbridge was running out of time to return to the Lowlands for the winter.
Nothing good ever came of haste in war.
Toran straightened and moved away from the entry, taking small, careful steps that had to be difficult for a man his size. But it was that or trip over the leather cord between his feet. He moved around the table, inspecting the paltry furnishings in the tent—the table and chair. And her. She saw him eye the tatters of his shirt on the table. He must be looking for the tool that she’d used to cut his linen.
“Colbridge?” he said as he picked up his crumpled plaid and tossed it over one shoulder. Bound, he could not wrap his belt around himself without lying back down on the table. Aileana moved to assist him. “He leads this army,” Aileana answered as she buckled his belt over the ends of his plaid. Her breath caught as her knuckles brushed against the heat of his belly. For a moment, he froze, then he exhaled and picked up the claymore strap, staring at the dangling sheath as if expecting his sword to appear within it.
“So, Healer,” he said, calmly, making a simple statement of fact, “it was yer task to question me while I lay half asleep and less likely to govern my tongue.”
Aileana blanched. She’d had no business asking him his name, but her curiosity often got the best of her, just as it was doing now. If Colbridge knew she’d been talking to his prisoner, he’d be furious.
“Nay,” she admitted, head down. “I only wondered. You seemed…different.”
“Different?” He bunched the leather strap in his hand and dropped the whole thing back on the table, as if dismissing it when it failed to produce his weapon.
“Aye,” she murmured, not daring to say what about him was really different—his ability to attract and ensnare her. “Your tartan…”
Toran began his hobbled pacing again, making a circle around the table and her, getting better at moving, his bonds affecting his balance not at all. “How many men does he have? How big is this camp?” He stopped in front of her, not touching her, but effectively trapping her between the table and his large, intimidating self. He held his hands out toward her, as if asking her silently, so as not to be overheard, to cut his bonds with the knife or scissors that he thought she must have. But she’d left them in her sleeping tent. She could do nothing to help him. But would she, if she had them? Did she dare defy Colbridge so openly?
She shook her head and held out empty hands in silent response to his unspoken entreaty, then answered his spoken one. “I don’t know. The number changes every time he fights.”
He dropped his arms and stepped back, but she doubted he would give up so easily. With a shrug, he ran his bound hands down her skirt until he located the pocket low on her right hip. She held herself still as he searched even though heat lightning shot from every place he touched. She knew the pocket was empty. Now he did, too. She suspected that he regretted it no more than she did.
She loathed Colbridge for his brutality toward his prisoners and his men, but she stayed with him because she had nowhere else to go. And because she believed that she was safer under his protection than she could ever be on her own. But she also depended on more than Colbridge’s orders to his men to leave her alone for her safety. Out of his sight, they could be tempted to try anything. So she allowed the misunderstanding be taken as truth: that her Healer’s talent depended on her remaining untouched. Colbridge and his men believed that once taken, she would lose the healing powers that they depended on to restore them to health and strength if they were injured in battle. Those who thought to try her quickly learned their lesson, usually at the hands of their comrades-in-arms who believed that having her skills available outweighed any momentary lusts, or any fears that she might truly be a witch.
Aileana took a deep breath. It was a mistake. With Toran so close, his scent surrounded her, filled her lungs, and the longing within her intensified. She struggled to focus on what she needed to say to him.
“And the MacAnalens?” he continued, as if nothing had happened, and she had not just denied him some measure of freedom. “The clan he fought yesterday. They’re prisoners?”
“Aye,” she answered, seeing no harm in telling him that news. “If they join with Colbridge, they’ll live.” But that was not enough information. He needed to know. “He’ll kill any who refuse.”
That set him on his heels. Frowning, he began to pace again. “Where is Colbridge?”
“I don’t know.” She fought back the tears that threatened to spill as she realized that the same choice would likely not be offered to a laird, no matter his clan, whose presence might undermine Colbridge’s authority. She barely had time to digest that disturbing idea, when he continued.
“Ye were able to make me answer ye, though I fought against it,” he said, a hard, undeniable statement of fact. He allowed her no chance to revise his recollection. “What else did ye make me do?” As he rounded the table behind her, he stopped pacing and settled one hip on the edge of the table. “What else did ye do to me?”
She had to lie. She refused to look at him as she said, “Nothing save soothe your headache.” She prayed he would not ask her how she’d accomplished these things.
“Ye’re his healer. Why should I believe ye?”
Her earlier phrasing mattered little, it seemed. This laird was too clever by far. “Because I’ve told you all I can.” She hoped he would accept that and stop interrogating her.
“Or all ye should?”
“All I can,” she repeated, suddenly wondering why she risked telling him anything at all. She owed this man nothing. She was attracted to him, true, but it was also true that Colbridge would not be pleased if he found out about this conversation. She risked much, and for what?
Toran fell silent after that, thinking, glancing toward the entry, then back at her, then back to the entry, as if concocting some plan to escape. That, she knew, was not possible. Too many of Colbridge’s men camped nearby, a guard outside the tent and others not far away.
“And what’s to be done with me?” He stood and splayed his hands on the table, leaning toward her across its suddenly much too narrow top. He locked his gaze on her, and refused to let her look away.
“I don’t know.” She answered truthfully if not completely, disturbed by the odd mixture of vulnerability and confidence she saw in his eyes. “That’s up to Colbridge.” Colbridge would surely want to get all the information that he could from this prisoner, but it was not Aileana’s place to discuss that. She feared that with Toran’s innate strength of will, it would go hard for him. Colbridge would not be denied any information that he wanted. She had seen the results of his efforts to break a prisoner who wouldn’t talk. Toran would be back for more of her care, with wounds much more serious than she had treated yesterday, before Colbridge finished with him. And when Colbridge did finish with him…no, she would not think about that.
Saddened by Toran’s prospects, she moved away, trying to put distance between herself and the fate she saw before him. She paused in the doorway of the tent, out of his long reach. From there, she could duck outside where the guards would see her and come to her aid if he tried to restrain her again. She no longer trusted that she could control him with her Voice. “Now that you’re feeling better,” she told him, “the guards will put you with the other prisoners.”
When he didn’t react, she took pity on him and added, “I’ll send food and drink before they do.” With that, she ducked through the entry, the urge to run warring with the urge to stay and give the doomed man the one thing he’d not quite asked for: herself.
Cool morning mist pooled in the valleys and steamed off the burns of Colbridge’s new holding. The fog hid most of the landscape, but he followed a path, little more than a cattle track, as it wandered upward over a ridge and into the hills. Trees grew in dense clumps in the deepest glens, but thinned out quickly at higher elevations, leaving no cover save the mist. The call of a golden eagle on the hunt pierced the stillness.
The scene was eerie enough to make him wary and he ordered his men to silence, suddenly fearing that the fog could hide an entire army. They rode slowly and cautiously on their way back to camp, alert to any sound their horses did not make. The level of concentration that he demanded was beginning to take its toll on men not yet rested from the contest the day before. A badger returning late to its burrow crossed their path and growled a challenge that startled the horses. Soon after, they came to a small burn in a ravine and he called a halt.
“Water the horses and stretch your legs.” Colbridge swung off his mount and reached into his pack for some of the bread and cheese he carried. “Keep your eyes and ears open. We’re getting closer to camp, but scouts from other clans could be anywhere.”
Leather creaked as the men dismounted. Relieved of their burdens, the horses sank their noses in the cold water.
“Dorton, head downstream on foot. Carey upstream. Keep an ear out and signal if anything moves.”
“Aye.” Dorton hooked a thumb at Carey. “We’re off.” He picked up his horse’s reins and led it off at a steady pace into the fog. Carey soon disappeared in the opposite direction.
Colbridge allowed himself to take his ease. With two scouts flanking the main party, one or the other would make it back to give warning if needed. He began to regret not waiting for the sun to rise far enough to burn the mist away. In the clear, they would be able to see from ridge to ridge and spot riders while still well away. Of course, his own group would be more visible, too, but he was confident that they could overcome any challengers they could see.
The observers on the ridge had been identified and the route to their holding described, under some duress, by one of the surviving MacAnalens. It always pleased Colbridge to demonstrate his dominance over these Highland savages. As for the observers, he’d let them dither for a few days before giving them the choice to join him or die.
Settling his back against a rock a few steps from his horse, he studied his men while he ate. They looked tired but alert, and he saw more than one watching the mist while they rested. He heard little conversation and that at a whisper. He had turned this rabble into seasoned warriors. Pride suffused him at this accomplishment, small though it stood against his greater goals. He had subdued every challenger. He deserved to be laird of all the Highland clans and he would be. It mattered little whether the title was bestowed upon him by the regent or by that infant on the throne to the south. After all his victories, they would have to acknowledge him.
He heard the thunder of rapidly approaching hoofbeats—many of them. He surged to his feet, dropping the remains of his meal. This was not a single rider, Dorton or Carey, returning. This had to be trouble.
As the first stranger on horseback broke through the mist, he cried, “Up, men, up!” and swung into his saddle. He wrestled his mount around to face the oncoming horses. His men moved quickly to their mounts, but just as quickly, five more men on horseback charged out of the haze after the first, swords drawn and swinging.
Despite the surprise, Colbridge’s pulse ignited with sheer exultation. He lived for battle, for victory. This small band would be no challenge to his men, who had defeated an entire clan the day before. It mattered not if his forward scouts were already taken or would circle back to join the fray. He would prevail.
Shouts and ringing blades on blades broke the silence of the mist. Horses screamed and hoofbeats drummed on the rocky ground. He thrust and parried, drawing blood from an adversary whose horse carried him away into the melee. He whirled in his saddle as some sixth sense warned him of a foe at his back. A large Highlander swung his blade, and Colbridge jerked his mount to the side. The impact slammed into his shoulder and back, and then his attacker was set upon by another of his men, and disappeared into the mist.
Suddenly, it seemed that men and horses moved in surreal silence. Blades bounced off blades without ringing. Mouths opened in soundless screams. Colbridge didn’t notice the blood streaming down his arm until he saw his sword drop from nerveless fingers. He retained enough presence of mind to know his danger. Abandoning his men to the fight, he rode as hard as he could back toward his camp. He felt his horse increase its pace and he held on, his vision wavering.
Aileana would fix this.
“Aileana!” Ranald’s urgent call brought the Healer running from her sleeping tent where she’d returned with her breakfast after sending food to Toran. The camp had gone dead still and silent. When she saw who Ranald led toward her Healer’s tent, she knew the reason. Colbridge, covered in blood, slumped, cursing, over the neck of his lathered and blowing horse.
“Get him down,” she ordered the men who stood frozen in place by the spectacle. She ran to the Healer’s tent, intending to treat Colbridge there, but remembered Toran as she reached the door flap.
Entering quickly, she was relieved to see him on his feet facing her, claymore sheath in hand. He nodded, clearly aware of the commotion.
“Go with the guard.” At least she would not have to waste time getting him out of the way. “Andrew!” As the guard entered, she gestured to Toran. “Take him to the other prisoners and keep him there. Colbridge needs my help in here.”
She was not so distracted that she did not see the musing look Toran gave her as he moved carefully to the door, mindful of the leather cord that hobbled his movement. It took only a moment, but the size and sheer presence of the Lathan laird gave her pause. Too late, she realized that her comment would allow him to recognize his captor. Keen wit glinted in those eyes, assessing her and the situation around him. But he left the tent quietly enough. Aileana followed him outside.
There, Colbridge stood slumped, supported by two of his warriors. He was pale but conscious enough to eye the prisoner as he passed by under guard. “MacAnalen!” Aileana heard him mutter. “You’ll pay for this.”
A look of surprise crossed Toran’s face and he cut his gaze to Aileana, then quickly looked away. Andrew prodded him to keep moving. In that moment, she realized that Colbridge did not know whom he held prisoner.
Then Colbridge wilted between the men supporting him, and Aileana had no time to ponder that startling fact, or to wonder what Toran might imagine to be her reason for not betraying him to her chief.
“Bring him in,” she told the men and reentered the tent. Ranald followed, and the men supporting her patient came right behind him. “On the table.” She cleared away the tray and cup, all that remained of the Highlander’s breakfast, and worked to gain the calm that she required to do what she must. Too many distracting thoughts would keep her from the focus she needed. The men laid their burden down, and she waved them out. Ranald stayed, watching her.
“How was he injured?” She raised her hands and began her assessment, knowing Ranald would not remain for long.
“He went out this morning to survey his new territory. So far, he’s the only one returned.” Ranald said volumes in a few quiet words. Never before had Colbridge been a casualty. That might mean that they’d met an overwhelming force, which could now be on the way here. Or they’d met a scouting party who were simply much better fighters than the MacAnalens had been yesterday. Either way, it did not bode well if they meant to finish this campaign and leave these mountains before winter set in. And with their leader down, his army might fall apart and none of them survive the day.
Aileana met Ranald’s impassive stare with one of her own and then turned back to Colbridge. She suspected she knew what went on behind Ranald’s expressionless eyes. Colbridge lay pale as death. Blood soaked the tunic and leathers meant to protect his upper body, and pooled on the table beneath him. The metallic tang of it filled the tent. If she let him die, Aileana fretted, what would be the consequence? Another pretender? More battles and more death? Was he really any worse than any other who might follow him? His methods were more brutal than necessary to achieve his ends, but he’d come so close to having everything he’d fought for—including, she hoped, peace.
Yet she knew what likely lay in store for Toran Lathan if Colbridge survived this day. Could she condemn the laird who so captivated her to die slowly, in agony, at this man’s hands? Or did her contempt for Colbridge influence what she thought he’d do? And what did she really know about Toran…Laird Lathan? Perhaps he was as bad as Colbridge, or worse. He wore the body of a hardened warrior. He’d fought; he’d very likely killed, for his clan. Did that make him any better than the man on her table? How could she know which was the right path to take?
Then she recalled the calm certainty in her mother’s voice as she’d told her daughter and apprentice, “Our place is to care for the wounded and the ill, no more than that.”
Aileana took a deep breath and shook off her doubts. She had no choice. She placed her hands a breath above the slope of Colbridge’s shoulder. Her Talent told her much more about the injury than her eyes alone.
“He’s lost a lot of blood. His collarbone is broken,” she told Ranald, her voice even, betraying none of her concerns, “but he’ll live. Get the leathers off him while I stop the bleeding and check for other wounds.”
Ranald scowled and opened his mouth to speak. Aileana frowned and shook her head, demanding his silence, and his compliance. His teeth clenched on what he intended to say and with none of his usual care quickly stripped Colbridge’s upper body. Then he turned Colbridge’s limp form to bare the ugly gash that split the top of his shoulder and ran in a deep slice along his back to the shoulder blade. She’d seen worse, but this would tax her energy. She’d sensed no other injuries, so went back to the shoulder.
Ranald stepped back as she began. On his way out of the tent, he turned and announced, “I’ll have food and drink waiting for you when you finish.” Then he left.
She sighed and tried to put Ranald out of her mind so she could set to work closing the wound, knitting bone, muscle, and tendon. Ranald’s comment reminded her of the many times he’d provided for her when she was too exhausted to see to her own needs after a difficult healing session. Was he trying to make amends? Or trying in a subtle way to tell her that he would support her if she changed her mind and let Colbridge die?
In the time that passed while she worked, no attack came. Despite her concentration, she heard several men from Colbridge’s scouting party calling out as they straggled into camp. The sounds seemed distant and faint, and she quickly forgot them as she focused on the minute repairs that severed blood vessels and nerves required. At last, Aileana finished. Exhausted, she left her patient to recuperate on his own, and ducked out of the tent.
She found Ranald on a bench he’d placed near the entry. He held a tray filled with bread and cheese. Two tankards of mead waited beside him, untouched. Without a word, he handed her one tankard and she drained it quickly. Collapsing beside him, she consumed the food and the second tankard. Finally she could speak. “He’ll be fine, but he’ll sleep the rest of this day and night. In the morning, he’ll need broth and mead before other food to help him replace the blood and strength he’s lost.”
“I know, Aileana,” Ranald said quietly. She was aware that he chided her gently because of her fatigue. They’d been through this many times. Ranald knew what to do.
But she saw his tension in the stiff way he sat and stared off into space, and knew that he disapproved of her saving Colbridge. She doubted that she approved, either. But she had followed her mother’s teachings and done as she had been trained to do. She dared not stray from that path. There was little else left to her. No home, no parents, no real friends. Just her God-given Talent and her training, to be used to the best of her ability. She did not wish to decide who should live and who should not. After she did all she could do, whether her patient lived or died was in God’s hands, as it should be.
“And what of the rest of the scouting party?” Aileana asked.
“Half made it back and have been cared for,” Ranald answered simply. “They reported that they drove off the raiders. Escaped them is more likely.”
Grateful for the news that there were no other urgent needs for her Talent, she raised a hand in weary salute, stood, and crossed back to her sleeping tent with nothing on her mind but getting the rest she required after an intense healing session.
But oblivion eluded her as she remembered the scene between Colbridge and the laird called Toran. Colbridge held the chief of an unknown clan already in his clutches, but knew it not. That Aileana did know gave her an unaccustomed sense of power.
While she enjoyed some small status as the Healer, she lived at Colbridge’s beck and call. Her Talent was her protection. No one accosted her, but no one accepted her, either. Here she had neither friend nor foe, only wary companions among the other healers. Even Ranald kept a circumspect distance.
What would her life be like, she mused, if Toran, who could captivate her with a look or a gentle touch, made her his own? Could he give her the home she missed? Was the attraction between them something real or something borne of her longing for a different way of life, a different use for her Talent? This would bear thinking about. While she did, Toran’s secret was safe with her.
A chill breeze laden with the remnants of morning mist swirled in the shade under the tree where guards had tied Toran. Some of the leaves overhead were still green, but most were tinged with rust and gold. Autumn had begun to paint them with bright hues, but Toran suspected jealous winter snow waited, not far off, to strip the branches bare with cold and wash the colors away. Shirtless, Toran hunkered down and tried to keep warm.
The survivors of the MacAnalen fighting force, hands and feet securely bound with leather strips, sat or stretched out on the ground, leaving a clear space around each. Two guards walked slowly among the prisoners, then joined other soldiers at a nearby fire to warm up. Toran kept an eye on them, knowing they or others like them would be back. It was fortunate that the tartans of the two clans were so similar. Except for the torc that had probably saved his life, Toran blended in with the other captives.
Toran’s men were missing, which worried and saddened him. Had they fallen in the conflict or gotten away to carry the warning to the Aerie? Nor was the MacAnalen laird anywhere in sight, and Toran feared he’d met his fate on the field of battle. The leader of these invaders, Colbridge, had threatened Toran on his way from the healer’s tent, and clearly mistook him for the laird of this clan. Toran couldn’t decide whether that gave him some advantage or not. But he was disturbed by the fact that the invader needed the services of the healer a day after routing them. Did the battle still rage closer to the Aerie, and were Toran’s men caught up in it as they searched for him?
If he weren’t bound, he’d kick himself for ignoring Donal’s warnings. He should not have been out of the Aerie, not after the news had come of the rabble headed their way. But the meeting had been set with the local lairds a month past and no one expected an invader to arrive so quickly. It was just bad luck that Toran had stayed behind after the meeting to consult another day with the young MacAnalen, which was why he’d wound up fighting alongside his hosts. Damn fool stunt, that’s what Donal would call it, especially since it had gotten him captured for his troubles. It could have gotten him killed.
The captives around him carried on subdued conversations among themselves. Several greeted him quietly after the guards who’d tied him to a tree left the area. A few complained that as their closest neighbors and advocates of the peacemaking talks, the Lathans should have supported them in the battle. Angus MacAnalen, one of the MacAnalen chieftains, who sat nearby Toran, quickly silenced them.
“Stop yer foolish blather,” he warned them. “If our runners had gotten through, the Lathans would have fought with us.” He slanted a look at Toran.
“Aye,” Toran agreed, keeping his voice low, “and now that I’m overdue, my men will come looking for me. We’ll all get out of here then.” Angus and his men could count on the Lathans for support when the need arose. Despite the old lairds’ feuding before Flodden, their clans had long been linked by fostering and marriage.
That got a chorus of nods and soft “ayes” until Angus again motioned them to silence by opening one bound hand and closing it into a fist, not wanting to draw the guards’ attention.
“How long before yer clan arrives, do ye think?” Angus quietly asked Toran.
“Not long,” Toran replied. “If my men got away, they could have reached the Aerie during the night and be on their way back now. Perhaps the invaders’ leader was injured by Lathan scouts on their way here.”
“Aye, he went into the Healer’s tent with a sword cut to the shoulder. He’ll be out of action for a while, perhaps permanently.”
“That’s good news,” Angus replied. “Cut off the head and the body dies. We may yet get out of this with our skins whole.”
Toran studied his surroundings, noting the size and strength of the invading force encamped here. He tried to ignore the chill that crept down his naked back with every breeze. What he saw surprised him. The army was not a large one, nor was it well supplied, so far from home. But it was large enough to take on Highland clans, crofts, and villages decimated by the loss of their most experienced fighting men three years ago. And here it camped, within hailing distance of Toran’s home. But the Aerie would be a much more difficult challenge for this rabble.
The type of restraints they used spoke volumes, too, as the MacAnalens were bound as Toran was, hands in front. “Angus, why have yer men no’ untied each other?” Toran asked. “We must break free. According to the Healer, those who don’t join with this Colbridge are put to the sword.”
“We wondered why they left us here. They must be waiting for their leader to decide what to do with us,” Angus mused, then shrugged and continued. “They don’t want to bind our hands behind our backs because they’d have to feed us, or untie us to take care of necessities.” He gestured at the space between his men. “That’s one thing the guards do enforce. If we get too close to each other, they move us farther apart. As long as they see enough ground between us, they stay by the fire.”
“Best yer men start working their bonds loose while the guards are over there, then,” Toran whispered. “Donal won’t bring in more than a scouting party until he kens what he’s up against. There won’t be enough men to cut everyone loose and fight off Colbridge’s guards, too.”
“Aye,” Angus agreed. He passed the order to the men around him in a low voice and told them to tell the others. “When the guards come this way, stop what ye’re doing,” he warned. “Have a care, lads. That lot will stay by the fire most of the time, but others may not.”
Toran was gratified to see that the MacAnalen captives retained the sense to be careful. If a few could get free, they could help free the others when the time came. Toran kept his gaze moving around the camp as he carefully flexed and stretched the leather binding his hands. His efforts in the Healer’s tent that caused the abrasions on his wrists had resulted in a small measure of space, but not enough to slip his hands through the loops, and not enough to break the bindings. He kept working, stilling only when the guards moved their way, and beginning again as soon as the guards turned their backs.
Eventually, another low rumble of conversation caught his attention. He turned to see what interested the men and saw the Healer cross the camp. The skirt of her green kirtle swirled around long legs as she strode, then draped over a pleasantly rounded backside as she bent to enter a small tent.
Toran’s pulse kicked up at the sight of her. What was it about that Healer that drew him so?
“There’s a lovely lass,” one of the men said, leering after her and distracting Toran from his troublesome thoughts. “Had we won the field yesterday, there might have been a better use for these fetters on her.” He tugged on the leathers binding him to the tree. “Just let me get free of here and…”
“And what?” one of his fellow prisoners jeered. “That’s the Healer, ye fool. She has the Sight and can make yer puny manhood wane even smaller than it already is. If ye cross her, even the wee fairy maidens willna have a use for it.”
“Aye,” a third man laughed. “If she hears ye prattlin’ on this way, ye might begin ta feel a certain shrinking, even now.”
The first man got a worried look on his face, then growled as the men around him laughed. “Go on w’ye,” he barked.
Someone hissed, “Now look what ye’ve done— here come the guards.”
Indeed, the two guards who’d made a round earlier were joined by another of the invaders. They stayed together, but looked the bound men over, one at a time, as they moved among them.
Toran recognized the tactic, meant to intimidate and to quell the rising spirits of the prisoners. “Keep quiet, do you hear?” one of the guards finally demanded, kicking the nearest prisoner before the three turned and walked back to their bonfire.
“With their chief under the care of the Healer,” Angus whispered to Toran, “it seems they lack the stones for more confrontation than that.”
“What do ye ken about the Healer?” Toran asked.
“We’ve heard she’s a captive, too,” Angus began, “but the benefits of her skills award her the freedom of the camp.” Angus hesitated, then at Toran’s nod, went on, “The men may have the right of it,” he said, clearly troubled by the subject. “Some of our men were seen to take grievous wounds in the battle, yet they sit among us, whole and healthy, just hours after they were taken near death to her tent, with no memory of their injuries. Had only one claimed to see this, I’d lay it to the confusion of the battle, but there are several.”
Toran’s thoughts whirled as he wondered just what had happened to him to require her attention. Had he also been near death? This…Talent…Toran wondered what to make of it. But he did ken one thing: it would not be wise to leave her here. She’d learned too much about him. But even more important, it would be wisest to deprive the enemy of her skills and bring them to his clan. For that reason alone he should take her—or kill her. Toran put that thought firmly aside. That she was a prisoner here, just as he and the MacAnalens were, meant that she deserved to be freed with them. That he wanted her past all reason was perhaps the poorest of motives, but the one which drove his thoughts, and would also drive his actions, he decided, should the opportunity present itself.
“Angus, I have a plan, but I require the assistance of one of yer men.”
“We can’t leave the Healer here to aid the invader. I’ll take her with me back to the Aerie, but one of yer men must feign illness to draw her among us once Donal arrives.”
“Perhaps something he ate?” Angus suggested.
“Aye, causing a great deal of belly pain. That might do the job. He must appear to be ill enough to fetch her, not one of the other healers.”
“I think I know just the man,” Angus said, chuckling. “Brodric is always telling tall tales. This should suit his talents very well.”
Angus leaned toward the man next to him and gestured to another nearby. Ah, the man who’d warned that the Healer could cause serious shrinking. Toran watched the whispered conversation as Angus told his man what they wanted. A grin split Brodric’s face. He clearly relished the challenge. Angus turned back to Toran.
“Brodric is ready whenever Donal arrives.”
Laughter drifted over from the bonfire, and Toran wished that some of the heat it generated would, as well. Glad he was to be wearing breeches instead of a kilt. At least his manhood suffered no immediate danger of shrinking from the cold. He rested his arms on his knees, and dropped his chin, making his upper body as compact as possible for a man as large as himself. It would be a long day, and an even longer night, even if he wrapped his plaid about him.
But the position had the added advantage of allowing him to worry at his bonds with his teeth while appearing to simply rest his head on his hands. He’d made some progress when riders leaving camp had awakened him at dawn, but the damage he’d done to his wrists was greater than the damage done to the leather before the Healer arrived.
As for what she’d done when she’d seen the condition of his wrists, Toran didn’t understand what he’d been feeling then, but even the brief touch he’d allowed her had helped heal the worst of the damage inflicted by the leather. In hindsight, he should have let her finish the job. He’d be in better shape, and he might have a better understanding of what exactly she could do.
Or perhaps not. If she used magic, her methods would be past his kenning. But if she truly used magic, surely it was benign or even good magic used to heal and help, despite the warlike setting. Perhaps her life depended on providing aid the invader by keeping his troops sound. If so, why was he, a captive, given to her to heal? Ah, the torc. If they thought he ruled as laird here, they would think he kenned a great deal about the lay of the land and the capabilities of nearby clans. Indeed. The invader wanted to learn more about the area.
Several hours passed. The guards handed out a midday meal. While they ate, Toran questioned the men around him about the battle the day before and the invaders who now held them.
“No one has seen the MacAnalen since the battle,” Angus told him, grief plain on his handsome face. “He’s the only brother left to me and I fear he’s among the dead. The men are calm for now, but their rage over their losses will not be denied much longer. When your men come, the fighting could start again.”
“Nay,” Toran advised, “there are not enough of us to take them all. We need to get away so that we can return to fight on our own terms. Where are they keeping their horses?”
“On the other side of camp,” Angus replied. I saw a line of them tied out in the trees when I was brought here.”
“All together? That’s convenient, and sloppy. It will be easier to cut them loose. Steal those ye can. Scatter the rest. If ye make for the hills, ye can hide out where ye can re-arm and strike at a time of yer choosing. We’ll stand with ye o’course. But it may be as ye said. With their leader out of action, or dead, this army may disperse on its own, saving us all the trouble.”
“Ye speak sense. We’ll be glad of the chance to chase them south into the arms of the Sassenach.”
“And if they won’t go, we’ll take care of them, together.”
Angus, thoughtful, nodded before speaking again. “Most of these guards pay little attention to us, preferring to stay by the fire. We could let the men farthest from them start to slip into the woods when they get free of their bonds.”
“Nay,” Toran answered. “The risk is too great. If they’re seen, the guards will stay closer and more alert. Better the guards are lax in their duties. Donal will have time to cut several loose to help the others before we’re noticed. And my men will be armed and able to defend us.”
“Aye, that’s sensible,” Angus agreed, still tugging and twisting his bonds to stretch and loosen them.
Toran approved of the young MacAnalen lieutenant. If the MacAnalen was truly among the dead, Angus would be a suitable successor to lead his clan, though that must be confirmed by what remained of his people—if they could win free from the muddle they were in now.
Toran’s thoughts returned to his own situation and that of his home half a day’s ride away. The fact that the invader chief languished here meant he had not been able to carry the battle on to the Aerie in Toran’s absence. That would be ironic indeed, to waste his effort attacking its walls, when he already held its laird, and did not know it.
Though he fought to stay alert, Toran was nearly dozing from fatigue when the sudden flicker of shadows in the trees at the edge of the encampment caught his attention. Under half-closed eyelids, he began to study the perimeter of the camp, watching for the tiniest hint of movement in the weak sunlight of early afternoon.
Nothing happened. He began to think it had been only a stray breeze, when the leather thong binding him to the tree suddenly went slack. Donal’s familiar low whistle sounded behind him in the brush. Toran carefully studied the guards at their fire. They were paying no attention to the cluster of prisoners. The rest of the camp seemed quiet. It was time to go.
“Angus,” he hissed. “Tell Brodric to start.”
Angus straightened up and glanced around. “Donal?”
“Aye.” Donal’s whisper came from the brush at their backs.
Toran motioned for silence as a guard started in their direction. But after only a few paces, the man turned back to the fire, called by his compatriots to answer a question. Toran exhaled.
“Donal, send one of the men to cut the lines to their horses and lead them quietly into the trees,” Toran ordered. “Angus’s men will retrieve them. And stay put where ye are until I signal.”
“Already done, Lathan,” Donal responded dryly. In other circumstances, Toran would have chuckled. But there was too much at stake now.
“Always a step ahead of me, are ye?”
“Who trained ye, lad?” Donal answered simply.
At that moment, Brodric, only a dozen feet away from Toran, began to moan then doubled over, feigning agony. Others in the group called for a healer. Toran leaned back against the tree he was supposed to be tied to. One of the male healers approached with the same three guards.
“Here, now. What’s this?” the man demanded. He bent to examine his moaning patient, and Brodric’s cries of pain escalated. The healer sent one of the guards away and Toran’s pulse quickened. Angus slanted him a look, then went back to watching their drama play out. The healer continued his examination for another moment, then sat back on his heels, waiting, while Brodric writhed and moaned.
Soon she approached. The Healer. Toran’s senses went on immediate alert. He studied her as she hurried up, noting how the sunlight brightened the red in her hair, how gracefully she moved, even in haste. Even the guards by the fire turned to watch her pass, Toran noted. That worried him until most of them turned back to the fire, used to her presence.
As she passed under the trees, she flipped her heavy braid over her shoulder and down her back before kneeling by the groaning man. Toran’s palms itched with the desire to unbraid that wealth of hair and fill his hands with it. Mayhap he’d have the opportunity, once they returned to the Aerie. That thought cheered him as much as the knowledge that Donal waited behind him for the right moment to make his move.
Toran watched for long minutes as she ran her hands lightly over the torso of her patient, pausing as if to listen, before continuing her odd regimen of stroking, then pausing again, occasionally looking puzzled. It was a strange thing to see, but Brodric quieted as if she was having some effect, and she coaxed him to uncurl. Two guards, bored with the process, left. The male healer followed on their heels to the fire. Only one guard remained with the prisoners.
Toran nodded. Better and better.
Brodric sat up suddenly, red-cheeked and smiling. He reached out to grasp the Healer’s hand. If he was playacting, Toran thought, he excelled at it. He seemed genuinely relieved of pain. The Healer quickly pulled her hand away, frowned, and stepped out of his reach, but closer to Toran. “My pardon, lady,” he said. “I only meant to thank ye.”
She nodded and spoke to him, so quietly that Toran had to strain to hear her. “No one touches the Healer, man. Rest well.” She turned to step away.
Toran gestured urgently for Donal to move, and the snap of a twig broke the stillness. The undergrowth around the prisoners suddenly sprouted six armed men. Donal’s gruff greeting sounded sweet as he darted around the tree to cut Toran’s hands and feet free. So did the sight of the men he’d feared killed in the fight yesterday. They’d gotten away and brought help. One of them, Callum, silenced the guard behind Aileana, then moved to cut Angus’s bonds.
“Get moving, lad,” Donal hissed. “We’ve only these few to break ye out and hie to the hills, not an army to take on this whole damned camp.”
But the Healer still stood only a few feet away, wide-eyed, frozen in place by the abrupt appearance of dirk-wielding strangers. The opportunity was exactly the one Toran had planned for. He gained his feet, then scooped her up, clamping one hand over her mouth to stifle any scream before she attracted the attention of the guards and roused the rest of the camp.
“Quiet,” he warned her. “Ye ken what will happen if we don’t get out of here. Colbridge will kill us all.” Still stunned, she nodded.
Some of Angus’s men slipped their bonds from their wrists and bent to untie their feet. “Donal,” he hissed, “cut Angus and the rest of his men loose. Arm them as best ye can and silence the guards.”
“Aye,” Donal answered, motioning to the Lathan men. “Kyle’s waiting in the trees with the mounts. Take the lass and go.”
“Nay, I’ll hand her to Kyle and bring back more weapons.” With that, he ran into the trees as hard and fast as he could with the burden of the dazed woman in his arms.
“Toran,” he heard Kyle call softly, “this way!” He dodged small saplings and ran into Kyle, already mounted and holding two other horses—Donal’s and his. More horses waited just beyond Kyle in the trees. Toran was happy to see extra swords in scabbards tied onto several of them.
“What have ye there, Laird?” Kyle asked.
Finally, to Toran’s amusement, the woman found her voice.
“Put me down! What do you think you’re doing? I’m a Healer. You can’t take me hostage!”
“Aye, lass, I can,” Toran countered. “And I have.” With that, he set the Healer on her feet, grabbed her arm, and moved with her to the horses. “I’m glad to see Banner made it home,” Toran said, freeing one hand to stroke the big horse along its neck.
“’Tis how we knew ye were in trouble and not just delayed by a wen…” Kyle stuttered and then cut a glance to the woman with Toran. “Uh, until Callum and Brian got back, that is.”
“Give me yer spare sword and dirk,” Toran commanded, ignoring Kyle’s gaffe and gesturing for him to dismount. “Keep her here until I return. Tie her to a tree if ye must,” he said, giving Aileana his sternest frown, then warned Kyle, “But don’t let her touch ye.”
Kyle nodded and handed over his weapons. Aileana, he was glad to see, stood stock still, watching them.
He glanced around as the sound of fighting filtered through the trees, then turned back to Aileana. “Stay with Kyle.” He took a few steps back toward the fighting, and then turned back. “He won’t harm ye,” Toran promised her with a mirthless grin, “unless ye give him reason to.”
Aileana’s eyes widened. He decided the message had been delivered clearly enough.
A shout behind him in camp alerted him that their escape been discovered. Toran ran back in time to see his men and several of Angus’s doing battle with the guards. Toran moved fast. He stooped quickly to cut another of Angus’s men free and gave him the dirk he’d used. Then he ran toward the clump of combatants. He got there just the last guard fell. But help from the rest of the camp was starting to arrive a few at a time. They were quickly dispatched by the combined force against them. Toran glanced around. All of the MacAnalens were free of their bonds. Some, weaponless, were already moving into the woods. Several picked up the fallen guards’ weapons and waited with the Lathans. Shouts echoed around the camp and Toran knew more men would arrive soon. They had to get out now or take the chance of being overwhelmed and killed or captured again.
Toran exchanged nods with Donal and Angus MacAnalen who signaled to the remaining prisoners.
Angus paced Toran stride for stride. “Take yer men and go,” Toran ordered. “Split up. Make for the cave on Penwyms Hill. ’Tis hard to find if ye dinna ken it’s there. My men will take care of any who pursue ye ahorse.” Toran gave Angus the sword he carried. Angus passed it to Brodric on his other side.
“What about ye?” Angus asked.
“I ride for the Aerie with our prize,” Toran told him. “I’ll send out scouts to find and supply ye as soon as I have her secured,” he promised.
“Aye,” Angus agreed, then raised his sword and shouted, “MacAnalens to me!”
Toran returned to find Kyle and Aileana where he had left them. They were eyeing each other cautiously, but Toran was pleased to see that Kyle had not found it necessary to tie her up.
“Kyle, let’s go. Healer, with me,” he commanded. The rest of Donal’s party arrived then and mounted up. Aileana chose that moment to begin protesting, backing away from Toran and shaking her head. Out of patience, Toran scooped her up and tossed her onto Banner, then swung up behind her. Toran pulled her upright before him and wrapped one strong arm around her waist.
“Donal,” Toran called, “I need a sword.” One was quickly passed to him. He slid it into Banner’s scabbard. “Take the men and ride escort for Angus,” he continued. “He may need help with stragglers from the camp. I’ll take our lass on toward the Aerie.”
“Aye,” Donal answered. “We’ll find ye. Just make sure none of that lot do,” he said, hitching his thumb over his shoulder toward the invader camp.
“They willna,” Toran agreed and kicked his horse into motion. Kyle’s mount stayed on Banner’s heels. The rest of Toran’s men would follow as soon as they ensured the MacAnalens’ escape by harrying any invaders who managed to round up a mount. Gripping the reins one-handed, he increased their pace until they raced through the trees, ducking branches and flying down slopes, then climbing quickly to the next hill crest. Aileana struggled now and again, and Toran allowed it until Banner nearly stumbled on a downslope.
Toran gripped her waist more tightly as she squirmed. Whether her agitation was from discomfort or an attempt to escape, he didn’t ken, but it mattered not. “Have a care, lass,” he warned her. “I dinna wish to drop ye on yer pretty head. A fall from horseback will likely spoil my plans for ye.”
“Plans?” she gasped. “What plans? How dare you! Let me go!”
“Why, lass? Do ye wish to stay with Colbridge?” Toran tensed, unwilling to accept the possibility that she could choose captivity with the marauding army over the freedom he offered her.
“He has protected me.”
“So far, perhaps.” Toran slowed Banner just long enough to capture Aileana’s chin with his hand and force her to look up at him. It took real effort to ignore the softness of her breasts against his arm. “But ye were never safe there, lass. Ye saw how sloppy his guard became when he wasna able to keep his eye on them. With him gone, ye’d be prey to all.”
“Lass, even some of the prisoners had ideas ye’d no’ appreciate, could they but get their hands on ye.”
At Aileana’s gasp, Toran returned his hand to her waist and kicked Banner into a gallop.
“Ye’ll bide well with me,” he promised as she digested that bit of news.
“I can take care of myself!”
Toran admired her heart as much as he decried her logic. She was actually arguing with him as they rode headlong through the woods, gaining speed as they went. But words would not free the beautiful Healer now. She was his.
You’ve Been Reading HIGHLAND HEALER
Title: Highland Healer
Series: Highland Talents #1
HE NEEDS HER FOR HIS CLAN.
HE WANTS HER FOR HIMSELF.
CAN HE HAVE BOTH?
Toran Lathan never expected to become Laird, and never expected to meet a woman like Aileana Shaw. Her healing ability is just what his people need, but Toran cannot resist her beauty. Yet will loving him destroy her ability to heal?
Aileana Shaw has a healing touch – and a special talent she must keep secret. Stolen from her home by a marauding army, she’s kidnapped again by the Highland Laird she heals. Is she a prize of war, or the prize of his heart?
While Toran battles the invading lowland army, he also battles his desire for Aileana. And Aileana must decide if she can trust her secrets to this fierce warrior who needs her talent, but wants her love.