The older man, Duncan, must have sensed a question in her gaze while
he stood across the fire from her. “Naught to fuss over, lass. They’re only
aimed at the bottom of the hill, to see what might be noted about the
complete effects of this weather.”
She nodded and accepted a flask from the lad, Hew.
“’Tis only water,” he said to her when she sniffed at the small round
opening. She drank only a bit, having some concern that she already had to
relieve herself and any more liquid in her system would only make that
“Aye, now, and stop gawking at the lass as much, Hew,” instructed
Duncan. “Any of you. The fair Maggie is bound to be a bride of our good
Lord, and no’ meant for such depravity as you’re likely imagining with
The man named Craig looked up at Duncan and then to Maggie, and
then back to Duncan, clearly having no idea of what his captain spoke.
Daimh tossed a rock into the fire, pretending a great distress that Maggie
was quite sure was feigned. The man Archie moved his tongue around his
teeth inside his mouth, as if he worked to remove some bit of lodged food,
which seemed unlikely as it was possible they hadn’t eaten in as long as she
had not. He stared at her while he did so, and Maggie had the impression
she was meant to be cowed by his hard stare while he pretended to take her measure. She was not intimidated by him, but in fact decided fairly quickly that he only liked people to be afraid of him, but that he wasn’t actually very mean.
She returned the flask to Hew with a smile of appreciation, finding the
youngest man’s clear blue eyes fixed upon her yet again, or still, despite
Duncan’s notice. Sitting upon her rump, she drew her knees up, nearly to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. It wasn’t very ladylike, though
she did make sure the many layers of her numerous skirts covered all of her limbs, and even her stocking-ed toes. She’d abandoned the fur blanket when she’d originally sat up this morn, and would have drawn it up and around her now but that the man, Iain, had taken it with him. The fire had been stoked and blazed attractively, but it was still very cold in this cave.
“Where were you coming from and going to when you were caught in
the storm?” She asked Hew.
“Going home,” said Hew with a smile, as if he’d delivered greater
news than this. “Been gone for months now, all over Caithness and further
“Chasing the devil named Alpin,” Duncan added, lifting a brow to
Maggie. “Ever hear of such a name? Or the mayhem he’s been charged
Maggie shook her head, the name not being at all familiar to her. “Is he
a bandit or—?”
“That and more, aye,” Hew supplied. “Thieving and raping and
murdering all over the place.”
“Been carrying on for two years,” said Archie.
Next to him, Duncan nodded thoughtfully, his gaze transfixed by the
fire. “More devil than man,” he said. Very quietly, he told this tale: “Took
twelve churchmen from the monastery up at Wick and nailed horseshoes to their feet. Made them sing and dance for the entertainment of his men. This went on for more than a day, so say some. Gelded a few, hung them all in the end. Burned the priory and the fields to the ground. Dinna even bother to justify this abhorrence with any robbing of the place. Took nothing, seemed he only wanted the amusement.”
“Aye, a sick bastard, he is,” Archie said, his hands on his hips, staring
likewise blindly into the fire.
Maggie was overcome with the senseless brutality of the tale and knew
from the somberness that invaded these men now, that they had witnessed
some part of this, mayhap had come upon the wreckage of this Alpin’s
horrid violence. How awful. She gave some brief thought to how fortunate
she was, or had been, in her short life. She had ofttimes bemoaned the lack
of true love from her sire and the dreariness of her little life in Torish, and
even now, the fate that had been extended to her, marriage to Kenneth
Sutherland; but she had never known a horror such as those poor souls did, had not ever been the victim of any true violence or injustice. She ought to remind herself more often of her own blessed circumstance.
“There was more brutality,” Hew said. “Small village near Helmsdale,
entirely wiped out. Came across them days later, bodies scattered
everywhere—men, women, children. The slices in their throats were the
least of the harm done to them.”
“But he must be stopped,” Maggie said.
“Aye, lass,” agreed Duncan. “And that’s what we’re about.”
The laird and the twin named Donal returned shortly, looking like two
snow monsters, the white precipitation clinging to almost every part of
them, hair and fur, and breeches and boots. They both shook off much of
this near the door, removing their furs and flapping them about to rid them of the moisture and the cold. They stomped their feet and ruffled their hands through their hair, until most of the snow had been removed and they once again looked human.
The laird shook his head in answer to the probing glances thrown his
way. He walked around the fire, saying, “We’ll go nowhere today. Maybe
no’ for several days. Deep as a horse’s belly even at the bottom of the hill.
And heavy.” He moved around the circle of the fire, behind the people
sitting so close. When he stood behind Maggie, he flicked the fur once
more, away from her and behind him, and then settled the whole thing over her shoulders. “No sign of clearing,” he said, as if he hadn’t just done the most kindhearted and remarkable thing, remarkable in that it was so casual an action, as if he regularly offered his cloak to cold women in need. “Sky looks the same in every direction.”
“Winds have died down,” Donal added, plopping down next to his
brother, “but that’ll no work in our favor.”
Duncan nodded, understanding immediately. “Storm could hover for
days, just over our heads.”
“Aye,” said Iain, “and we’ll need to plan for just that. Need to hunt and
heat more water, get the horses fed.”
“I’ll get to the hunting,” said Archie, spitting into the fire. “I’ll go
batty if I’ve to stay too long in this small space.” He looked around the
group. “Come on then, Craig. I’ll no want to be aggrieved by the yapping of either of them.” He inclined his head to the twins. “And if we’re lost, I
imagine you’re the one to get me back.”
Craig nodded, possibly understanding only that he was expected to
leave the cave with Archie, and stood and dressed as the old man did,
bundling up for the cold and the hunt.
There was some discussion between Duncan and Archie about whether
they would actually be fishing or hunting, supposing if they could find a
loch named Calder, and it wasn’t frozen, they might stand a greater chance
of catching fish than trying to find any critter—or better, something larger
—that wasn’t hunkered down in its own den or lair, same as the hunters
Iain sat down, taking the blank spot next to Maggie. He inclined his
head to her but said nothing directly, holding out his hands closer to the fire, chafing away the cold. Maggie noticed just now his plaid, which she hadn’t before as he’d mostly been covered by a fur. The thick woolen fabric was draped over one shoulder, the pleats and folds not so neat as a laird might normally wear them. The McEwen plaid was colored with earthen green and brown threads, altogether rather subtle and subdued in tone. The Sutherland tartan was of bold colors, green and blue and red; Maggie had seen it often, had always been struck by how vibrant the Sutherland colors were against the drab gray lives of Sutherland’s lesser folk.
The laird caught her staring at his shoulder, his head turned to the right
to consider her.
“I feel rather useless, just sitting here,” she admitted. “Isn’t there
something that I might do to be helpful?”
Duncan answered before his laird did. “Aye, now, you just sit there
being bonny, lass. That’s all we’ll ask of you.”
While Maggie favored the captain with a smile for his politeness, Iain
McEwen shrugged and said, “None of us will be doing much. And there’s
no’ so much to do now but wait.” And then, with a tilt of his head and the
barest hint of a grin, he added, “Aye, but you might be praying on us, lass,
you being more devout than any of us regular heathens.”
Something about his tone and the quirk of his lips suggested that he
mocked her, but Maggie could not be sure, and so only replied with a nod.
The morning stretched on, with the twins taking care of most of the
conversation as they huddled around the fire. It was not hard to like those
two; handsomeness aside, they showed no concern over their circumstance, proved extremely capable of entertaining themselves—and others by way of the close proximity—with their talk and their play. At one point, they both lie on their bellies, facing each other, their arms presented forward, their hands intertwined, while it seemed the goal was to send the back of the other man’s hand to the ground. Daimh proved victorious, and then ignored his brother’s demand of another try. After a while though, even the twins seemed to run out of energy and settle down.
The day would be long, with naught to do but sit and wait. When she
could stand it no more, towards late morning, Maggie leaned toward the
McEwen laird and quietly asked of him where or how she might take care
of her personal needs.
“Aye,” he said, nodding and standing. “Sorry, lass, I should have
thought of this earlier.” He stretched out his hand, into which Maggie put
She nearly gasped, the warmth of his fingers shocking her as he pulled
her to her feet. She’d kept her fingerless gloves on, but her hands were still
very cold, and his were absolutely not, that she did not at all resist when he
squeezed her fingers and did not immediately release them.
“We’re no’ used to having female company, lass,” he explained.
Standing next to him now, his full size was revealed to her. He easily
stood a head taller than her, and so much power was revealed in the breadth of his chest and shoulders. She thought he might be twice as wide as her and very little of this could be attributed to his clothing or gear, as he wasgarbed now in only his tunic and plaid. She was made almost breathless by his physical presence, by the aura of sheer strength that emanated from him.
He glanced around the cave, causing Maggie some concern now,
hoping he didn’t think she was going to relieve herself amidst these close
Duncan must have heard Maggie’s request, that he advised, “Might
want to hie up to the next hut there, lad.”
“Aye,” agreed the laird. Iain McEwen lifted the fur again, the one he’d
covered her with earlier, that she’d allowed to slide off her shoulders when
she’d risen. “Wrap up, lass. I’ll have to carry you or you’ll be drenched in
snow to your belly.”
Oh, my. How awkward, she thought, embarrassed now for her need and
for the nuisance it would cause him.
“I should wrap in my cloak, if it’s still available. And you make use of
the fur, as it is your own.” She had some idea that being held in his arms,
while awkward, would shield her from the cold.
Hew jumped up and scurried over to a boulder that rather sat in the
middle of the cave, collecting what must be her cloak from atop it. He
presented this to her, favoring her with a now familiar expression, both
eager and intense.
“Thank you, Hew.” She shook out the cape and turned it around her
shoulders, flipping the hood up over her wimple and latching the frog
closures near her neck.
The laird had moved away, strode over to the doorway. Maggie met
him there. He’d been staring outside, but turned when she approached,
giving her a grin. “All bundled up.”
Clenching her fingers, she wondered how he might carry her, having
some idea of climbing onto his back as she’d once seen a woman do. The
woman, she recalled, had jumped quickly out of the way of a fast moving
horse and cart, twisting her ankle in the process; when her husband had
come to collect her, she’d been truly unable to put any weight on her foot so that the man had turned his back to his wife, crouching down so that the woman could wrap her arms around his neck; the man had straightened and carried his wife home that way.
Her deliberations proved unnecessary, as the McEwen laird simply
bent and scooped her up, one strong arm around her back, the other under
her knees. Maggie gasped as he gathered her firmly against his chest and
waded out into the snow. She squinted hard against the obscene brightness
of the day, tucking her face against him, having not expected the light to
hurt her head. Instinctively, she latched onto him, her fingers curled into the fur wrapped around him.
Their progress was slow and plodding. Despite the man’s great size, he
had to lift his leg up out of the depths of the snow with each step, tilting
them left then right, again and again, as they trudged further up the side of
the hill. Thankfully, at this elevation the hill was not so steep as it had
proved at lower sections, but it was still a very slow progression. His steps
were measured and careful, but the snow was deep enough that he lost his
balance at one point, tipping precariously toward the ground. Maggie
shrieked and grabbed on tighter, pinching her fingers around his neck,
hoisting herself up against him when she thought they were going down.
She felt his chuckle under her fingers and against her side and at his
face as they were nearly cheek to cheek now. “I’ll no’ let you fall, Maggie
And he did not. He recovered smoothly and carried on, though Maggie
still clung fiercely to him, as she’d rather not be dropped or accidentally
thrown into the cold and deep snow. Almost in the very next moment, her
worry over this was overshadowed by her increasing awareness of their
proximity. Maggie was suddenly conscious of the warmth and strength of
his flesh under her fingers at his neck, became very aware of how solid and
hard he was against her soft curves. Against her ribs, which were pressed
firmly to one side of his chest, she felt every movement in the motion of his muscles, rippling heatedly against her. Cold and ice and snow seemed to be lost then, as Maggie could fathom no other sensation but that of his strong body moving. She might have relaxed then, at the sense of strength and security his steadiness offered, but that she was overcome by some other emotion, as yet unnamed, though she knew well it was some reaction to the feel of him.
“You’ve gone as stiff as a dead steed, lass. Relax.”
She tried, she really did, but could not. She could not now pretend she
wasn’t aware, that she suffered no reaction at all—whatever it was—to
being in his arms. But she did turn her face away from his cheek, looking
forward, hoping their destination wasn’t too much further.
“You’ve got freckles on your forehead and chin, too,” he said with
some wonder, telling her that he was watching her and not his footfalls.
This brought her gaze back to him. “They’re everywhere,” she said,
before she thought better of it. Once said, she rather cringed inside,
wondering that her statement sounded so intimate.
He lifted a brow at her, one side of his mouth quirking upward.
Perhaps when the ground was not covered by snow that reached to this
man’s thigh, the trek from the cave to the next hill bothy might only take a
minute, or two if made without a purposeful gait; just now, in these
conditions, it took almost five minutes, Maggie feeling more and more like
a nuisance to this man for the inconvenience.
The third hut sat much like the first, in which the horses had been
stashed, with three man-made walls closing in on the rock of the hill as its
fourth wall. This one actually had a door, but the winds must have blown it
open and the drifting snow then kept it that way, that the snow was blown
into the first ten or so feet of the hut. Iain McEwen stepped further inside
than the wind-blown snow and finally set Maggie down.
She grimaced at him, sorry for the trouble she’d caused. He wasn’t
panting from his exertion, but he was clearly breathing harder than when
they’d started out.
The older man, Duncan, must have sensed a question in her gaze while