Duncan 2

He’d let it go for now. Likely, the lass’s falseness was a product of her
fright. He’d witnessed that very thing, through slitted eyes when first she’d
woken. Iain had waited, hadn’t wanted to startle her further, or upend her
anxiety into some full-scale horror. And she’d calmed quickly enough,
though her eyes had remained huge and round in her face. He’d appreciated her relative calm, having some brief fear of his own, that she’d have started wailing or screaming or taking up with any such tantrum. She’d not even given him grief for making loose and free with her stones.
And yet, she lied to him.
Iain moved his hand and indicated the bruise on her cheek, near her
eye. She went completely still, until he asked, “Who gave you that?” She
moved then, lifted her bandaged hand to cover the discoloration on her face for a moment, her gaze leaving his, as it had before when she’d lied.
“I fell,” she said, and tried to smile, turning the questions around onto
him. “But what were you and these men doing out in a storm?”
“Same as you,” he answered, “going from one place to the next. It did
rise quickly, the storm. Aye?”
Her green eyes found his. “I don’t ever remember a wind like that.
Blew the snow sideways, straight across, that I marveled that anything
landed on the ground. It’s the first time I’ve ever been trapped in a storm.”
“I’d no’ want to alarm you—what’s done is done—but you’re lucky
we happened upon you. You’d no’ have survived had we no’.”
“Then I owe you and your companions my life. How shall I repay
With a kiss, was the immediate answer that sounded in his brain. Iain
scowled, refusing to give attention to so ignoble a response, no matter that it had come so swiftly and with such pleasing possibilities. “Aye, we’ll make
you take charge of the horses,” he said, withholding his grin, “feeding,
grooming, shoeing.”
A thin auburn brow arched upward. “Shoeing them? Oh, sir, I know
nothing about that.”
“No worries,” he said. “But you’ll need to be housed with them as
well. Makes it easier to keep them well tended.”
“Oh.” She nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek, while those
delicate brows lowered into a frown. Her green eyes found his again,
scrutinized his expression, perhaps noted the laughter in his gaze. “You are
teasing me?”
“Oh.” And she smiled at him and he thought he might want to tease
her often. The lass was bonny enough, but when she smiled she was radiant, those tempting lips open and curved, showing neat white teeth and just one dimple, indenting her left cheek with no small amount of charm. The smile grew, danced into her eyes, as she suggested, “You should have played that out more, should have told me I’d be required to walk behind your marching men, using my clever basket to clean up anything your horses dropped along the way. That would have really caused some hysteria.”
His shoulders shook and his grin flashed briefly. “But would you have
done it?”
She lifted and dropped her shoulders. “I would have no choice,” she
returned gamely, “though to do so would be to equate the value of my life,
which you have so generously saved, with that of horse dung. Aye, I might
need to rethink the extent of my gratitude.”
He didn’t think he was easily captivated, but he knew he was just now.
“Is the good abbess expecting you, that a delay will cause her some
worry?” He wondered.
“It might,” she said, putting her gaze onto his neck, avoiding his once
again as she perhaps told another untruth. Quickly, she brushed this aside.
“Of course, there’s naught to be done about it. I’ll arrive when I arrive.”
“Aye, and dinna you seem so calm,’ he commented, “trapped in a cave
with a band of hard-bitten Mackays, wind and snow howling all about, and
you so near to death today. Yet, you give nary a cry of distress and shed no’
a single tear for your troubles.”
In a very small voice, she admitted, “I’m terrified, if you must know.”
And because her green eyes were fastened on his, he guessed she might be
truth-telling just now. “I am hoping that the safety of which you’ve assured
me will be a matter of reality.”
“Hoping? Should no’ a nun be praying?” He was fairly certain he’d
caught her off-guard, challenging her piety, but she recovered quickly
“The words of hope become prayer,” she said evenly, needing only
seconds to concoct this drivel. “God loves that we remember Him to ask for help, and with the indulgent smile of a father, He responds benevolently.”
She was clever, he’d give her that.
And he was still convinced she was lying.
“Aye, and close your eyes now, lass,” he said then. “’Tis a long, cold
night and no’ a warmer day on the morrow, and no’ to be without its share
of troubles, getting out of here and on our way.”
“I don’t think I can sleep anymore,” she said as Iain adjusted the fur
over the both of them, bringing it back up around her shoulders.
“But you will no’ be minding if I do?” He asked, showing another
short grin. He could not, he believed, continue to talk to her, and have those lips so close and have her eyes fixed so beautifully upon him, and…Jesu,
she could no’ take the vows. She’d have the priests all sinning, or no less
than dreaming on it.
Iain slept, as did the lass, despite her concern that she might not. And
when next he woke, he thought that morning had not yet come, but that it
was nigh. Sometime during the night, the lass had drawn near to him. Or he to her, that her face was nearly pressed into his chest, her arms and hands curled up between them. He took note of all parts of his body and thought the tops of her tiny feet might have sought out warmth and were now bent against his shins. He hadn’t moved at all from his side, nor had the lass, facing him still, but he found that his hand was settled over the fur that covered them, resting on what he imagined was the curve of her hip.
He needed to get back to Berriedale, to the village beyond, and visit
Fiona. One good release between that one’s milky thighs and he’d not be
lying here thinking that almost-but-not-quite holding the fibbing though
tremendously bonny stranger in his arms was about as near to pleasant as
he’d known in a long, long time.
Glancing down showed him only the top of her wimple covered head
and Iain cast his glance off toward the cave opening. ’Twas dark yet, the
blackness gone with the departing night, chased by the morning gray. He
listened but heard no howling wind and decided the storm must have moved on and away or withered to nothing.
“Seems we might get about early.”
Iain shifted his gaze, over that of the lass, and found Duncan awake as
well. The old man was on his back, his head tilted toward Iain, his gaze
beyond, to the mouth of the cave.
“Aye, and home before dark tomorrow, God willing.”
“What’s to be done with the lass?” Duncan wondered, settling his eye
onto her fur clad form between them, employing naught but a whisper.
“I’m no’ sure. She asked for some direction, but it seems a perilous
thing, to send a lass off on her own.” He knew she wasn’t awake, that she
couldn’t hear them speaking about her as if she did not lie immediately
between them. The hand he’d kept on her hip detected no movement at all, no stiffening of her body to indicate she’d woken and now eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Aye,” Duncan agreed. “Lass got a name?”
Iain shrugged. “I dinna ask.”
Duncan’s bushy gray brows scrunched down over his dark eyes. “You
were chatty enough though, talked for quite some time. Dinna occur to you to wonder ‘bout her name?”
“Her lies cast but a dim light on the trifling matter of her name.”
“Her lies?”
“Aye,” said Iain, “the lass’d have me believe she was on her way to a
convent when struck the storm.”
Duncan scowled with his own disbelief. “Going to tuck that face away
in a convent?”
“She says aye.”
Duncan nodded briefly and voiced his ideas for the day ahead. “We’ll
see how the snows have fallen. If they stayed up here in the hills, we’ll
make good time once we get down. If the entire area is blanketed, will be a
slow go.”
“But go we will.”
“Aye, we’ll get back home and dinna we ache for it? But we can no’
rest for too long, no’ until he’s rooted out and destroyed.”
Iain concurred. “That bit we heard up at Brim’s Ness bears pondering.”
“Credible, I’d say,” Duncan said. “The man’s no’ a phantom. And an
army of fifty—if those be his numbers—canna go unnoticed and undetected in Caithness for two goddamn winters. Makes sense, then, that he’s a Sutherland, finding refuge across the river when he’s no’ about the industry of those vicious and ungodly attacks.”
Iain realized the lass was awake now. Under his hand, he felt her go
rigid, though he couldn’t know for certain if it had been Duncan’s gravelly
voice, rising with his frustration over their inability to find the ghostlike
Alpin, or the mention of the name Sutherland that had roused her and
braced her. He recalled that last night she’d asked if he were a Mackay.
More of the linen wimple covering her head appeared as she lifted her
face above the fur. She pushed away from his chest with motions jolting
enough to suggest she was embarrassed to have been so close. Some
mumbled sound, which he thought might have been an apology, went with
her as she moved away from him, sliding her hip out from under his hand. It occurred to him then to wonder at his own actions, that he had kept his hand on her person, with such unfounded familiarity. He shrugged internally, thinking the lass hadn’t given any indication in their short conversation that she was the type to grouse overloud about such a thing, being that it was fairly harmless, even if she likewise questioned it.

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