He didn't see how to reconcile those things. That she could load and fire a gun as well as any man, and yet she had skin, luminous and fair, as if she were crafted of the finest ivory.
He'd thought she might be a spy, but could it be that she practiced some form of the dark arts? Goose bumps fanned across his skin then ebbed, like a wave washing over the sand.
“Are you… ” His voice was hoarse, grave. “Is it that you're some sort of… witch?”
“What?” She laughed then. “Me? A witch? God no.” She shook her head, and then a peculiar look darkened her features. As if she hadn't before considered such a conclusion, potential ruination narrowly averted.
A sad half smile quirked her mouth. “Are you kidding? My family? I told you, we're Irish. Irish Catholic, to put a fine point on the whole thing. I've been baptized, first communioned, confirmed… the whole deal.”
Haley sighed deeply. She looked at him with such sadness.
He wasn't sure what to do. What to think.
“You still don't believe me, do you?” she asked.
“Yeah. I wouldn't believe me either. Okay-”
“Haley-” he began.
“No, no, let me think.” She knew so much about the time period. Knew about MacColla. What could she tell him to make him believe?
She wracked her mind for any tidbit from his life that she could recall. She'd taken the seminars, read her David Stevenson. She knew famous bits of trivia that wouldn't have been so well known in his own time.
I can do this, she thought. She knew things he hadn't told her. She knew things none of his peers would've known.
She could convince him. Haley shifted, crossing her legs to face him.
“Your dad was imprisoned for years with Campbell. Wait,” she said suddenly, her face blanching. “He's not still imprisoned, is he?” He shook his head and she made a mental note to try to piece together what had happened to his father, and when.
“Your brother Gillespie was with him,” she continued. “There are other brothers too, but I don't know about them so much… ” she trailed off.
That wasn't going to cut it.
MacColla just smiled at her. “Many know of Campbell's treachery against my father, leannan.”
“There's that poet,” she snapped and pointed her finger at him in excitement.
“You know… what's his name?” – she tapped her fingers on her lips – ”Iain Lom MacDonald! He loved you. Wrote all kinds of poems and songs about you.”
MacColla's scowl turned into a beet red blush. He opened his mouth to speak, but she stopped him. “No, just a minute, I'm not done. He had a nickname. Now thatwouldn't be public knowledge, would it? The Stuttering MacDonald, maybe? Bald Iain? Well, he stuttered and he was bald, and had some sort of nickname along those lines. I just can't… ”
She raised her hand, seeing what looked like growing impatience on his face. “Wait,” she pleaded. If she could only think of that nickname, surely it would be some sort of proof of something.
What was the poet's nickname? Nickname…
“Ah!” It came out as a yelp, her eyes widened. “I've got it:
Your father!” Haley leaned in, animated.
“Your father had a nickname. Colkitto. It was because he was left- handed. Those close to him called him Colkitto.”
He nodded silently, his eyes squinting. Whether it was from bafflement or suspicion, she couldn't tell.
“You see, in my time, for a while people… well historians mistakenly called you Colkitto. They thought you were the left-handed one. People argued about it. But it's not your nickname, is it? Your father Coll was… is known to his closest friends as Colkitto.”
She inhaled deeply, smiling in triumph.
But not MacColla. His somber face chilled her and stole the curve from her lips.
He rose. And though he offered his hand to help Haley up, his voice was gruff when he said, “We must go. I'm expected in Kintyre. My family waits for me even now. ”
“Fret not, leannan.”
MacColla began to walk, adding. “You'll soon be able to ask the man for himself.”
Could he believe her? They'd stopped for a brief rest, and MacColla sat, watching Haley.
The lass was in her own world, studying his sword as if it could unlock the key to the universe. She'd leapt for it the moment he pulled it from his black leather scabbard to sit.
Would he believe her fantastical story, or decide simply that she was the loveliest madwoman he'd ever met? Her crazy talk of traveling through time had confounded him.
“Would you call this a Gallowglass sword?” she asked.
“Leannan, you do have the most peculiar questions.” He untied a small leather bladder from his belt and took a deep pull of water.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, amused and disconcerted both. “So you speak the Irish too? Gallóglaigh. Foreign soliders,” he mused. “I've not heard that word in some time. Aye, it's got the look of an Irish sword like those the Gallóglaigh fought with long ago.”
He watched her return her attentions to the blade. She ran her palm along the base of it. It was a simple design, with V-shaped lines that echoed its sharp edges. Haley slowly stroked her hand along the flat of it dipping her fingertip in and out of the etched steel.
Hunger clutched hard and fast at MacColla's chest. He felt it smolder in his eyes and drive straight to his loins, making him rigid with want.
“How is it you make a man weak with a mere touch to his blade?” He tried to muster a smile, but could only stare, the pure craving of her pushing out all other thought.
“Claidheamh da lailum,” he rasped. “That's what that sword is called.”
“Kla… hi… dah… life.” she pronounced slowly. “Two-hand sword.”
Feeling his eyes on her, Haley glanced up , and the intensity of his gaze overpowered her. His eyes pierced her. Incinerated her.
What did MacColla think of her? Did he believe her or think her insane?
She looked away quickly. Strangely nervous, she returned her attention to the weapon, searching for some clue to the heart of the man.
She smoothed her fingers along the guard, an unadorned span of steel in the shape of a 7, directly over the hilt, meant to protect the bearer's hand. Thin nicks in the metal scratched her thumb, and she contemplate d those strikes from other swords that had not found his flesh. She realized she was grateful.
Her finger traced down the leather grip. It was a ring-hilt, with a plain circle at the base of the pommel. Either an Irish-made sword, or with a nod to one.
She fisted her hand tight around it. The leather was smooth, from sweat and blood and use.
Haley lifted. The tip remained on the ground, but still she felt the sword's heft. It would be only seven, perhaps eight pounds. Not too much heavier than the five -pound weights she'd sometimes worked with at the gym.
She lifted the blade from the dirt. It was difficult. Eight pounds might not be much, but stretch it into a six-foot-long sword and it was a different story. She let the tip fall to the ground.
“Your early biographers wrote that you could behead four men with a single swing.”
“Ha!” He gave a resounding laugh, and the sound of it was a balm to her nerves. “Is that so?”
She shrugged innocently, a smile on her face now, and he scooted next to her to clap his arm about her shoulder and tuck her in close.
“Well, I suppose if the men were all of a height,” he speculated for a moment, sounding highly amused. “And if they all stood very still for me, back to stomach. Then, aye, I could do it.”
In that moment, a wave of affection for him swept her. His suddenly high spirits were irresistible. And his accent melted her. His words had come out as “verrra still,” the thick brogue tripping his tongue.
She wrapped her own arm around his back, leaned close and found herself inhaling quickly for a renegade hit of his scent. Musk and man. Closing her eyes, she shook her head at her animal response. An explosion of warmth in her belly, her body suddenly expectant, all her muscles tensed, piqued, and on alert.
Did his laughter mean he believed her? Could he believe she was from another time? She hoped desperately he did.
“We can't tarry long, leannan.”
She sighed. Her body ached from walking. From not sleeping. Not eating. She'd been taken in the night and her feet we re still bare, scratched and sore.
Reading her thoughts, he said, “I see your weariness, and I'm sorry for it. But there's nothing to be done. We're still on Campbell land. Though some of his people rally quietly against him, we've no way to tell friend from foe.”
He tangled his hand in her hair, pulled her close to kiss thetop of her head. “We need to keep walking. Find horses and be away from here.”
“How will we find horses?” She gestured to the grand wilderness around them. They'd traveled steadily south, as much as possible taking cover in the wooded tangles that shadowed Loch Awe. She didn't imagine they'd be running into a stable anytime soon. “We're out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Don't fash your bonny head over it.” He pulled her in for one last, rough hug to his side. “I've spent the better part of the season raiding this very land. I expect I'll be able to root out a pony for that sweet bottom of yours.” He slid his fingers down to give her a pinch.
She made a little chirp of surprise. MacColla's grin was guileless and, Haley thought, if she didn't know better, she'd think he was quite pleased with himself.
He looked at her, his features softening, brown eyes warm as they roved over her face, taking her in.
“One more thing, leannan.”
The naked affection she saw in those eyes startled her. Thrilled her. Scared her. “Yes?” Her voice came out breathy and slight.