Straightening her back, Haley pinched the blade between her thumb and two fingers. She turned.
Careful to keep her wrist steady, she threw it hard, overhand, grateful for the binding around her ribs that eased her movement.
The small knife spun, found its mark, its scarred wooden hilt quivering in a nearby tree. “I wanted to practice that?”
“Gu sealladh sealbh ort!” MacColla strode to the tree, shaking his head as he marveled at the blade stuck more than an inch deep in the bark. He looked up at her and grinned. “Losh, woman. Where did you learn that?”
“My father.” Haley returned his smile despite herself. “He taught me.”
“But did he teach you how to fight with that?”
“Yes.” She walked to the tree to retrieve her knife. Wiping the blade on her skirts, she added, “Fighting is mostly what he taught me.”
“Show me.” Skepticism pitched his words, and Haley fought the urge to hurl the blade into his bare foot.
“Love to,” she said, with a challenge in her voice. She patted the fabric that was snugged comfortably tight around her torso, testing that it was secure.
He pulled his own dagger from its scabbard. Haley eyed it nervously, roughly twelve inches of glittering steel compared to her rusty little blade.
“That's not a fair fight.” she said.
“It never is, aye?”
“Fine.” She shrugged. Growing up with five brothers, she knew that fact all too well. “A few ground rules, though. You pull back before that thing cuts me.”
“Or?” He smiled wide.
“Or I cut you back.”
His laugh was broad. MacColla nodded, the smile still on his face.
She bit her lower lip. Haley had lied. She didn't know the first thing about defending herself against that size dagger.
Her father had shown her the basics of street knife fighting, though. It'd been the first thing he'd taught after her attack.
A forward grip, knife in the lead hand. Close the distance.
Rapid diagonal slashes. Burst forward into a quick stab.
It couldn't be too different.
Hopping back lightly, she assumed her fighting posture, bouncing on the balls of her feet. MacColla's smile faded a little. He considered her, intrigued.
He surprised Haley when he took his dagger in his rear hand. She knew it was what a Highlander would do if he held a sword in his right. But instead of a broadsword, MacColla wielded only his huge hand, open and ready to swat at her knife.
“Hm.” The sound she made was inadvertent. Suddenly the most important thing in the world was that she put up a good fight.
He struck first, coming at her with his left in a lumbering, halfhearted attack. Clearly he thought this a lark.
Haley braced her right arm at a ninety-degree angle. As she was blocking his weak swing, she leaned back and kicked her leg straight out, catching him in the groin.
He grunted, and the smile vanished from his face. His nostrils flared, and she panicked, thinking she'd mis-stepped badly. She girded herself, ready to be pummeled at any moment.
But he only rubbed at his thigh, regarding her with a new and unsettling look in his eye.
He leapt toward her suddenly, and she startled with the abruptness of his attack. Skittering backward, she slammed into a tree, dropping her knife from her hand.
MacColla kicked the small blade aside, chuckling. Resting his foot on a stump, he asked, “Do you yield?”
Haley frowned. She wasn't about to yield.
She watched him resheathe his dagger. His cavalier pose put him just slightly off balance. Giving him a sweet smile, she stepped toward him.
And then she lunged. Ducking low, she went for his leg, catching his knee as she rolled to the ground.
"Dògan!" he barked as he toppled like a felled tree, slamming the breath from both of them.
Haley hadn't planned beyond that little maneuver and scrambled to untangle her legs from his. But he kept her pinned as he lay beneath her, his brawny thighs like vises.
He chuckled, coughed once, then, chuckling some more, slapped a hand to her bottom. “Well done, that, ” he muttered.
His hand didn't move from her and Haley went rigid, unnerved by the oddly intimate position.
MacColla was breathing hard, his other hand on his belly.
And then it seemed to hit him too. She felt him grow still.
Mindful of her ribs, he placed his hands at her hips and silently rolled them both to standing.
He gave only a brusque nod before he stalked off. His plaid swirled behind him, the tail of it swaying with each long stride.
It was the swiftest and, Haley mused, possibly the only retreat Alasdair MacColla had ever marched in his life.
MacColla slammed the side of his fist into a tree, then muttered a curse as he shook out his hand.
He stormed back to Fincharn, unable to think on anything else but the lass's scar. A thick twine of skin marring her otherwise perfect neck. He thought about the man who dared cut her and irrational rage choked him.
MacColla sidestepped, lunging to slam his fist into another tree.
He didn't know how, but this strange woman had endeared herself to him. He understood what it was to have something stolen, understood the taste for revenge. He knew well what it was to suffer injury, and instead of seeking retreat, turning around to fight.
It was a warrior's impulse. He was a warrior. And he recognized the warrior in this Haley.
It touched him. Made him respect her in a way he'd not felt before. What woman lived with such courage that she'd face an enemy with naught but a cheese knife?
MacColla softened at the thought. Let a smile turn his lips.
What sort of woman indeed.
“MacColla headed west.” Anticipation hummed in Nicholas Purdon's voice. “My men tracked them through the passes, but lost the trail near the eastern shore of Loch Awe.”
“Aye.” Campbell nodded, speaking his thoughts aloud.
“He'd head to water.”
“My thoughts precisely.” Purdon leaned back in his chair, looking satisfied. He stroked the limp brown hair at the crown of his head, brow furrowed in the way of men much impressed with their own wisdom.
Campbell eyed him, sitting to his left at Inveraray's dining table. He couldn't fault the man; Purdon had indeed done a fine job. But he had yet to bring MacColla down.
The major thought he'd succeeded, but he had much to learn. And he was wise to be looking to the Campbell for his tutelage.
Campbell spared a glance at the witch seated at the far end of the table. The flickering candlelight cast deep shadows over her sharp features. He'd thought to ignore her, and Purdon wisely followed his lead.
“You did well.” Campbell raised his glass to the major.
Purdon gave a quick, gratified smile and said. “It should be a simple enough endeavor. There are but a handful of castles to search along the loch.”
“Make no mistake, Purdon. You did a fine job, but your work's not yet complete.” Campbell sipped his brandy, deep in thought. “You'd be wise not to underestimate my enemy. MacColla is a savage, well accustomed to dirt for a pillow. I'd not put it past him to choose a canopy of leaves to a roof over his head.”
“But he travels with two women. Surely they'd not bear up for long under those conditions.”
“Indeed.” Campbell picked a crust of bread from the plate before him and began to toy with it. “I can't imagine the man will linger in one place for long.”
Two women, he thought. Would the one they'd called forth be able to survive such circumstances?
“Witch,” he called to the far end of the table. “The woman you summoned, where does she come from?”
“I know not,” she replied, her tone matter- of-fact.
Campbell exchanged an irritated glance with the major.
“You know not,” he said flatly.
Finola shrugged and, giving her full attention to the plate before her, took a delicate spoonful of stew and began to chew slowly. Swallowing, she returned her gaze to the men. A placid, inquiring look was on her face, as if she had no idea what the problem might be.
“Are you quite done?” Campbell snarled.
“You forget your intent,” Finola said calmly. “Your desire was to kill MacColla. Not this woman.” She tilted her head.
“When your foe wields a sword, is it the sword that you fight? Though a blade can cut the life from you, the blade is not your enemy. The one whose hand holds the weapon. He is your only enemy. To lose sight of this is to lose the battle.”
“Do you threaten me, woman?” Campbell's fury boiled high in his chest. Witchcraft. A sport for women and fools. He'd chosen this path in error. This Finola was a weapon indeed, but one with no aim. The powers of black magic seemed haphazard, like a top set to spinning. Once put in motion, there was no way to control its course, its intent. “I ask you a question and you give me nonsense in return.”
“To put a fine point on it,” Purdon spoke up in tones meant to soothe, “where does MacColla ride? Does he sail for Ireland? North to the Highlands? Or first south to Kintyre?”
Finola merely giggled, a disturbingly feminine cascade of notes from high to low.
“Where is he?” Campbell shouted, slamming his hand on the table. “How powerful can your witchcraft be if you're unable to answer simple questions?”
He gestured broadly to the table, the walls. “I've fed you. You have water. Candles give fire all around. What more can you need? Cast your runes, read leaves, toss bones. I care not what you do ”-
“You presume too much,” she snapped, her giggling eclipsed by a severity that sent a chill through the room. Her eyes were dagger-sharp on the two men. “You cannot expect me to scry here.”
Finola looked around her in disgust.
“Oh I expect it of you.” Campbell's voice was cool like glass. “You told me you were the most powerful witch in all Scotland. Now prove your worth.”
They locked gazes for a long moment.