“What do you know of Graham?” He affected a cavalier tone, but Haley wasn't fooled.
“I don't think he died like people said,” she replied. He went still, and Haley felt gratified. She knew it. He was some sort of wacked-out academic rival. The competition made her cocky. “In fact, I'm almost certain he didn't die when people said he did.”
A single violent movement and he held her face between two viselike hands. “Who are you?” he snarled. “Are you Campbell's spy?”
His sudden movement jarred her. She flinched, and glass shattered in her chest. Haley gasped clipped breaths in andout through her pinched nostrils. “Campbell? What the… ”
What kind of a freak show was this, where she found herself immersed in some strange flashback? MacColla, Graham, and now this insistence on Campbell too?
The hollow thunk of a flask dropping to the ground startled them. “You'd be wise not to try my brother.”
Haley wrenched her face free of MacColla's grip and stared with unmitigated fury at his sister, standing hands on hips beside them. “They call him Fear Thollaidh nan Tighean, and he is bested by no man. And certainly by no woman.”
The strange Gaelic phrase resonated in the back of Haley's mind, but she quickly shoved it aside to concentrate on the girl in front of her. Certainly by no woman, my ass. It was creatures like this who gave women a bad name.
“You've got me cornered.” Haley made as if to concede. She needed to rest up, not rouse suspicions, if she were to eventually get away from them. “Look. I'm hurt. I'm tired. I don't know any Campbell. ”
She scooted back and the pain threatened, ready to explode, like a flame divining a whiff of kerosene. She stilled, the stabbing in her chest lending truth to her charade. “I don't have the gun, if that's why I'm here. I locked it up before you took me. ”
They stared at her dumbly and she chattered on. “Get it? The gun's locked up. I don't have it. I know you want to ride some more, but can I please just lie down and rest for a while?”
The need for sleep had grown critical. The binding around her chest had dulled her pain, and Haley felt the hysteria draining from her, leaving limp, exhausted shock in its wake. She realized her hands were freezing, and she held them before her, watching dumbly as they trembled.
The man muttered some curse under his breath. Black spots swam across her vision, dispersed just as quickly, then came again, slowing and growing into a cool darkness that swallowed her back and down.
Haley heard him issue some order to his sister, followed at once by the snap of branches. Felt his hands on her shoulders, then the rough ground at her back. There was the weight of fabric over her. Then blackness.
“Royalist or Covenanter, brother?”
“Hm?” MacColla watched the strange woman as she slept. It would be time to rouse her soon. He was desperate to be on his way, but he kept getting waylaid by the needs of these two women. He should be ravaging Campbell's lands in Argyll, not making camp.
He needed to push south, getting Jean to safe harbor with his family in Kintyre as soon as possible. But he'd realized in frustration that the women would require a day of true shelter, with rest and hot food, if they were to keep up his pace.
Lately, allies bled from Campbell's control as if from a ruptured vein, and MacColla knew of a place in Argyll where they might find sympathetic refuge on the way.
“Fincharn Castle,” his sister replied testily. The return of his gaze over and again to the sleeping stranger seemed to make Jean peevish, her waning patience putting questions on her tongue for which she'd normally have no concern. “I ask of the residents of Fincharn. Do we find a friend there, or a castle full of Covenanters residing in Campbell's pocket?”
MacColla spared a smile for his sister. He had to admit, she was dogged in her efforts to split his attentions from the stranger. “We find both,” he said. “It was once a MacMartin stronghold, but Clan Scrymgeour holds the castle now. And though the father was a Covenanter, his son John is the one awaiting us now. He supports the king, as we do.”
“And when is it we return to our own home, on Colon -say?”
Her chin trembled now.
“I know not.” He looked at his sister in long silence, then said somberly, “Don't fret, girl. The Campbell may have robbed our lands, but I will take from him more than th at. I'll exact the heart and the spirit of all Campbells, if the cost is my own cold body.”
Jean shrank, looking horrified, and MacColla laughed. “My apologies, sister.” He leaned over to chuck her chin. “All you need concern yourself with is visions of j oining our family in Kintyre. That's home enough for now, aye?”
He took a stick from the dirt and stoked the fire. “For the nonce, we find Royalist allies at Fincharn. And bowls full of good, hot stew, God willing.”
He inhaled deeply, as if getting a lungful of air might quell his gnawing hunger. He needed to fill his belly with cooked meat for a change.
MacColla let his attention drift once more to the lass. He registered the faint tsking of his sister as she gave up attempts at conversation, choosing instead to stab testily at the sputtering flames.
Despite her deep sleep, the woman lay stiffly, her arms wrapped about her torso as if she could cradle the pain in her hands.
No woman had ever stood up to him as she had. Few men either, and even fewer who lived to tell about it. But rather than make him angry, her verve had excited him, kindled some long-snuffed spark back to life.
He realized he didn't even know her full name. He'd somehow neglected asking about her father's name, her clan, her origins.
But watching her sleep, he'd given it much thought. He found it curious that, as they'd fled the castle, Campbell's men had attacked her ruthlessly. And so it was unlikely she was a family member. Or, if she was, she'd somehow crossed the clan in some way.
And yet Jean claimed to have been the only prisoner held at the castle.
The woman was a puzzle. Who could she be, and more importantly, on whose side?
Her questions about James Graham alarmed him. Only a very few knew of the ruse that had spared Jame s from the gallows. Painstaking subterfuge and smoke screens on the part of only his closest friends kept his survival a secret. That a stranger had struck at the truth was deeply troubling.
Could she be a spy for Campbell? If so, why would his men try to kill her? Was the attack on her merely a charade, some sort of trap to trick MacColla into taking her into his care?
That she was strong and determined he had no doubt. He studied her, asleep but far from peaceful. Furrows were etched on her otherwise smooth complexion, around her mouth, at her brow, her pain written on her skin. But the experience contained on her face couldn't rob her of her beauty. It perhaps even contributed to it.
Her features weren't delicate. Taken separately, they were sturdy, like her body. A square face, wide nose, full lips. Proud, unapologetic features that asserted themselves.
But, put together, those features underwent some mysterious alchemy, transformed by her luminous skin and black hair and unsettling gray eyes into som e exquisitely feminine creature.
The corners of MacColla's eves creased as he considered her.
Fierce. Robust. Yet unmistakably lovely.
In the way a lioness is all the more magnificent for her size and the power she wields.
He'd do well to fear this woman. As any wise man would such a creature.
Campbell eyed the man at his left. Major Nicholas Purdon had spent time fighting on the side of the Parliamentarians and Protestants in Ireland. Average height, average build, and flat hair the color of dishwater rendered him nondescript among men, and an unimaginative nature made him a tractable one too.
Two of the traits Campbell valued most.
He nodded at Purdon to swing the bucket, and cold water doused the blood and stupor from his clansman' s face. Shuffling tight past each other, they traded places.
Campbell looked down, intent on the sleeves of his ivory shirt, and creased a careful fold along each cuff. Finally ready, he looked back up and stared with disgust. The clansman's head lolled, and the only thing keeping him upright was the rope that tied him to his seat.
“You'll not die on me yet,” he snarled and slapped the man. The wet smack made a sharp sound that reverberated off the cellar walls. “Tell me who took her.”
“I-I told you… ”
Another loud crack of skin on skin.
“Then tell it.” Campbell bit out his words, fighting to keep his patience. “Again.”
He'd returned to Inveraray only to discover that his prisoner had been rescued by MacColla with the aid of, of all things, a woman. “Tell me how it is you fools let MacColla in. Let him best you.”
He'd worked so hard to capture MacColla's sister. The most valuable of all prisoners, gone like vapor in the wind. He landed another slap. “Then you let him escape. MacColla and… ” The loose flesh of his jowls turned purple with rage.
“ Unh… ” A strangled sound escaped the man's throat, and he stilled, seeing the terrifying calm steal over Campbell's features.
“I will ask you just once more,” he said smoothly. “And then you will s ee what happens when my patience is tried.” He pulled a dagger from the belt at his waist. Candlelight caught the superfine blade, flashed up it like lightning.
Campbell smiled to see the man eye it nervously. “You like this? I call it the needle.” He flicked it down hard through the air, and the thin blade made a sound like a bird chirp.
He drew it to the man's face, and the point kissed just below the clansman's eye, tugging and misshaping the delicate skin there. “Now you'll try once more to recall this other woman before you are the scrap in need of stitching.”
“It was the one.” The whisper came from the darkness behind him.
His hand slipped and blood trickled down his captive's face like a lone red tear.