Sutherland

Sutherland

They must have been watching them, either had trailed them for days,
possibly had been made immobile as well by the storm, or they’d happened
to spy them today while out searching and had raced ahead of them. ‘Twas
his own fault, being attentive of the bewitching lass and not their
surroundings.
“Which of you two fine gentlemen laid a hand on her?” The words
were sent across the field before he thought better of them.
He quickly read Sutherland’s expression, a quick but not overly
concerned frown, which suggested more of an internal query of why Iain
should care than a visible admission of guilt.
“I laid my hand on her,” shouted her father without a trace of shame.
He offered nothing else, no excuse, no reasoning, no justification. His tone
actually suggested some daring, as if he only wanted to be challenged or
reprimanded for his heavy-handedness.
Kenneth Sutherland slowly looked to his left and then his right, as if
only to draw Iain’s eye to follow, to remind him of the strength of his
numbers. He faced Iain again, leaning forward over the pommel, and
wondered, with a bit of a chuckle, “Are you to return my betrothed to me,
McEwen, or shall I take her by force?” No sooner had the query come than
Sutherland’s archers drew on Iain and his men. “Seems a high price to pay
for one woman.”
“And yet, here you are,” Iain returned, “venturing onto Mackay land to
claim her.”
The archers pulled back.
“Wait!”
Iain clenched his teeth when he heard Maggie’s cry.
She came from the trees, calling out franticly, “I’m here! I’m here,
Father.”
Hew’s frustrated and abbreviated call of, “Maggie, don’t—” possibly
did not reach the Sutherland army across the distance.
Iain turned his steed around so that his back was to the Sutherlands, so
that he faced Maggie Bryce as she tramped toward the front of their line.
When she stood near to his horse, he ground out, “I specifically asked
you if you were running from something that might bring danger to my
men.” His anger just now might more be the result of his own
powerlessness. That she had lied to him, that he felt betrayed even as he
barely knew her, that he could not save her from her own wedding, if that
had been what had sent her running.
She was as pale as the snow, which highlighted starkly both her
freckles and the remarkable green of her eyes. Damn her, but it was unfair
for a lass’s eyes to be that color!
She blanched before him at his dark tone. “I’m so sorry,” she mouthed.
He couldn’t be sure, as she removed her gaze from him to reclaim her
basket from the end of his saddle, but he thought her eyes watered.
“I thank you all for what you have done for me,” she said to the rump
of Iain’s horse.
Inside he fumed, over this circumstance, over his own helplessness just
now. But he said no more to her, his jaw tightened almost painfully to keep
his mouth shut and his anger reined in.
Maggie Bryce lifted her gaze to him. Indeed, tears threatened. So
many emotions were alive and glowing in her gaze, but he could read only
anxiety and sorrow. She opened her mouth, but no words came forth. And
then she turned away, lifting her skirts above the snow, and walked toward
the Sutherland army.
Iain pivoted his mount again and did not take his gaze from her, even
as he directed, “Craig, Daimh, draw on Sutherland.”
“I became lost in the storm,” Maggie called out with false cheeriness
to her betrothed as she walked toward him. “These men were kind enough
to offer shelter to me.”
Daimh and Craig positioned themselves at the far left and right of their
group, nocking arrows aimed at Kenneth Sutherland.
Sutherland steered his mount forward a few feet, his expression dark,
possibly unaware that he was a target just now. “The storm was days ago,”
he challenged Maggie in a loud voice.
“And we,” she returned, “were trapped in a cave, with snow to my
hips.” She was starting to pant heavily, either from her exertions traipsing
through the snow or because of a fear that her lies might be exposed, Iain
could not be sure.
“And he has now attempted to hide your presence from me,” Kenneth
Sutherland pointed out.
Iain heard her scoff breathlessly and say, “Laird McEwen sought only
to hide my presence from an approaching army. Of course we had no idea
that it was you. The man was intent only with keeping me out of harm’s
way. You should be thanking him for such care he—all of them—have
shown me.”
Iain’s jaw tightened yet more. The bastard made her walk all the way
to him, did not come to collect her, though it was obvious to all that she was
too small for the deep snow.
She continued to talk, giving more defense or possibly sweet-talking
her future husband, but Iain could no longer hear what she said.
Next to him, Hew ground out quietly, as ferocious as Iain had ever
heard him, “Do not let her go with them. She obviously didn’t want to
marry him, or she wouldn’t have lied about going off to St. Edmunds.”
“’Tis no’ our business,” said Duncan sharply, his gaze trained on the
archers, “between a man and his betrothed, certainly no’ a Sutherland
union.”
Iain felt his heart lurch. He clamped his teeth tight.
“Sutherland lass,” Donal said behind them, disbelief shading his tone.
“She dinna act like one.”
“God damn you,” Hew cursed at Iain, ignoring Donal. “You coward.”
Iain nodded. What else could he do? The lad would understand. At
some point, perhaps. It would serve no purpose to object, when they were
only seven men. They would be cut down, mercilessly, and for what? The
lass would still be leaving with Kenneth Sutherland, when they were dead.