Archie

Archie

“Archie, get him out of here,” Iain said tightly. His fingers curled
slowly into fists as he watched her walk across the space that separated the
Sutherland ensemble from his Mackays, his expression grim. A sickening
ache rumbled in his chest and stomach, while his nostrils flared with disgust at his own weakness, and at that part of him that for a brief moment actually considered calling her back to him anyway.
Hew spat at Iain, his saliva landing on Iain’s thigh before Archie
shifted his horse and collected the bridle of Hew’s. Iain caught only a
glimpse of Archie’s glowering red face before he pulled Hew away from
the scene.
When Maggie had reached the army, Kenneth Sutherland raised a
hand, summoning a young lad forward. The lad dismounted and helped
Maggie into his saddle, not without some difficulty. When she was settled
upon the horse, Kenneth Sutherland faced Iain again and called out, his
voice painted with condescension, “I ought to cut you down where you
stand, McEwen.”
Maggie Bryce had kept her head bowed in shame upon mounting, but
now cried out and glanced up sharply at her betrothed.
Jaw tight, Iain ignored her and made a point to look left and then right,
as Kenneth Sutherland had done a moment ago, alerting the man that he
was in the sights of two archers himself. “Trained on you, Sutherland,” he
called out. “You’d be the first to drop. Think your archers can hit ‘em
before they let loose?”
There was still quite a distance between them, but Iain was sure he saw
the man’s lip curl.
Iain and Kenneth Sutherland exchanged stand-off glares for a full
moment before Sutherland made a motion with his hand that began to move his army away from the meadow, headed west. Even when Kenneth
Sutherland steered his own mount away, he continued to scowl at Iain.
“We’d do best to make ourselves scarce as well,” Duncan said beside
him.
“No’ until they’re out of sight.”
The meadow was wide, and the Sutherland army had a way to go to
reach the trees which would remove them from the open space. Iain and
Duncan watched until the very last Sutherland disappeared into the dense
strand of pines.
Craig and Donal lowered their bows when the last Sutherland had
disappeared.
Iain dismounted while he waited, stretching his legs to ease the tension
coursing through his entire body. Some sound made him turn, just in time to see young Hew charging at him, his face still contorted with his anger at
what he perceived to be Iain’s spinelessness.
Duncan sprung from his saddle and yanked Hew back by the collar of
his fur.
Iain met the accusation in Hew’s glare while Duncan upbraided the
lad.
“Be done with it!” Duncan snarled at him. “It’s no’ as if she’d give you
the time of day, Hew,” Duncan spat out, needing the lad to understand he
hadn’t lost anything, really. “You think she’d have looked twice?” Duncan
ground out, shaking Hew’s shoulder, holding him close to his heated words.
“Think you finally met the one who might notice you? Did you ken that—”
Hew pushed off him, an unprecedented amount of strength and fury
shown as he shoved both hands against Duncan’s broad chest, startling the
older man, sending him reeling.
“I never said she—I dinna expect anything!” Hew cried out, spittle
following the impassioned rush of words. “I dinna think anything! I dinna
hope for anything! I just wanted to—” He stopped suddenly, his perpetually pinkened cheeks bright red just now. He lost his shout, lost the heat of his anger, that he finished in a wobbly voice, “I just wanted to ken her.”
Iain nodded, fully comprehending Hew’s dismay.
“She was no’ ours, lad.” He said after a while, shifting his jaw to accommodate the delivery of those bitter words.
Iain waited, but Hew said no more, so that Iain gained the saddle again
and began moving in the opposite direction the Sutherlands had taken,
headed east. Of course, he need not look behind to know his men followed. They must move quickly now, put a good amount of distance between them and the Sutherlands; he’d never trust a Sutherland to let that simple leavetaking be that. With his jaw tight, he refused to allow himself to dwell at all on the lass, or Hew’s reaction to her leaving, and certainly not his own.
He was surprised by a sharp and curt whistle from behind him. Iain
turned in the saddle. All had followed but Craig, who had wandered to
where the Sutherland army had made their stand. Craig crouched in an area of well trampled snow, his forearms on his thighs while he waited for Iain and the others to come to him.
Iain did not dismount but circled around Craig.
Before he spoke, explaining his departure, Craig shook his head. He
pointed to the beaten down, hard-packed snow in one spot. Iain lifted one
hand, wondering what he was supposed to be seeing.
“Jesus,” Duncan breathed next to him, obviously understanding before
Iain did.
Craig said finally, “The print.” He pointed to one very clear horseshoe
impression in the snow. “Seven nail holes.”
The blood drained from Iain’s face and chest, pooling in a dreadful pit
in his belly. “Nae,” was all he said, unable to believe what this implied.
Woodenly, he dismounted, needing to verify this with his own eyes. And
there it was, directly below Craig’s knee, a clear print.
Hew emitted a strangled and hoarse cry, drawing Iain’s gaze to him.
He felt every bit of the hateful recrimination in the lad’s foul glare.
Iain glanced down at the print again and then up at the trees, through
which Maggie Bryce had just ridden off with her betrothed, Alpin.