he rumble of hooves filled the air as the contingent of knights closed.
Lady Marie Alesia Serouge ran faster. Dropping to her knees, she shoved aside the tangle of brush and started to scramble beneath. Stilled.
Fragments of moonlight exposed the outline of a large, muscular male form.
The man turned. His face, savaged by shadows, focused on her. Even in the feeble light, his gaze burned into hers with ferocious intent.
Twigs caught in her hair as she jerked back. Her breath coming fast, she dared a glance toward the advancing riders before facing the lone warrior. She couldn't leave cover, nor could she place herself in new danger.
The thrum of hoofbeats grew.
With a prayer, and careful to keep her distance, she pushed her way beneath the brush.
The knights thundered past, their mounts' hooves casting dust, leaves, and sticks in their wake.
Through the branches, the stranger's gaze remained riveted upon her.
Pulse racing, she edged back.
The stranger lunged toward her. With a groan, he crumpled to the ground.
Another soft moan echoed into the night.
He was hurt! On edge, she scanned the darkened woods where the riders had disappeared over the horizon. Mayhap she'd erred and the knights were hunting this man? However much she wanted to believe that, she couldn't take the risk. Furious that King Philip's bastard daughter had escaped from his imprisonment, naught would deter the English Duke of Renard in his quest to recapture her.
On a groan, the wounded man rolled to his back.
She should leave. Flee while she could.
Marie grimaced. As if she could walk away from the wounded man without a care. The scent of earth melded with that of leaves and the warmth of the late spring night as she edged closer. A hand's width away she halted.
An arrow extended from his left shoulder!
By his unsteady breaths and soft groans, she could tell he was in pain. The shaft must come out.
She must go!
Even were she afforded the luxury of time, he was a stranger, nor did she know what had led him to this desperate end.
But what if he was innocent of a crime?
Blast it! She pressed her fingers against the well-corded muscles of his neck. His strong pulse beat against her skin.
A wolf howled in the distance, another replying nearby.
In the silken moonlight, she withdrew the dagger secured within the folds of her dress as she scoured her surroundings. A wolf could detect the scent of blood from a great distance. If attacked, this man would stand no chance of survival.
Unable to discern any immediate danger, she sheathed her weapon and refocused on the stranger. Her whole life had been devoted to helping those in need; how could she leave him here to die? Nor could she linger. She'd help him until his recovery was certain, then she'd depart.
Now, to find a place for them to hide. Marie scanned the grass and tree-shrouded landscape.
A dense blackness loomed through the tangle of limbs ahead.
Twigs snapped as she crawled behind the warrior. Careful to keep his left shoulder immobile, she slid her hands beneath his shoulders.
“I must move you, monsieur,” she whispered. Sweat beaded her brow and every muscle rebelled as she dragged him through the brush. He was a goliath of a man, taller and more muscular than she'd first believed.
After several brief stops to rest between tugs, she reached the entrance of the cave. Muscles aching, she collapsed against the rocky ledge and glanced skyward.
The moon had set and the first rays of sunlight streamed across the heavens in a prism of blues and purples. Marie frowned. Moving him had taken longer than she'd expected. Ignoring her body's protests, she dragged him inside and then shifted him onto his uninjured side. Opening her water pouch, she pressed it against his lips. “Drink.”
With a grimace, his mouth worked as he swallowed, then he shoved the water away.
Rubbing the fatigue from her eyes, Marie secured her pouch and set it aside. 'Twould hold him for now. “Rest. I will return shortly.”
A quick sweep of their path with a pine bough erased any sign of their presence. After, she picked several herbs that she'd need to treat the man's wounds and then gathered pieces of ash, wood that would burn without a trail of smoke.
Sunlight trickled through the forest by the time Marie coaxed the first embers within the pile of dried moss and twigs into a flame. After feeding several larger branches into the fire, she turned.
Her breath caught.
Until this moment, she'd caught glimpses of the warrior through flickers of moonlight. Now, embraced by daylight, she took in the fierce warrior. Long, whisky-colored hair rested upon broad shoulders honed by muscle. Hard, unforgiving planes sculpted his face. Unease trickled through her. Until she reached her father and informed him of the Duke of Renard's treachery, she could trust no one.
Turning to her task, Marie knelt beside the warrior. She clasped the arrow firmly in both hands.
His mouth tightened as he glared at her through half-raised lids. His gaze, even sheltered beneath dark lashes, burrowed deep into her consciousness with a potent reminder of the risk of helping this stranger.
Nonetheless, if he were to have any chance of survival on his own, the arrow must come out. With a jerk, she snapped the shaft as close to the skin as possible.
He gasped and then slumped back.
Thankful when he remained unconscious, she divested him of his mail and gambeson, careful to avoid brushing the embedded arrow.
As she began to remove his undershirt, she paused.
Whorls of dark hair swirled around aged scars, unknown stories chiseled across a battlefield of sinewy muscle.
As a healer, she'd aided many a man injured in combat, but this war-ravaged fighter exuded a dangerous edge. She eased farther back. Only a fool would allow herself to offer this seasoned warrior her trust.
Her heart tightened as she recalled the price of allowing herself to have faith in any man.
A mistake she'd never make again.
Marie shoved her thoughts away. She must finish removing the arrow, not wallow in painful memories.
After taking the arrow from his shoulder, she cauterized the torn flesh. Once she'd applied yarrow and toadflax over the wound, she secured the poultice with strips she'd torn from her undergown and prayed he wouldn't grow feverish.
With her body screaming its weariness, Marie lay down and closed her eyes. A warm haze fogged her mind. Images of her escape from Renard's knights, of the terror guiding her every step as she'd fled, flickered through her mind. Exhausted, she pushed her fears aside and fell into sleep's welcome embrace.
olyne MacKerran, the Earl of Strathcliff, shifted to his left side. Pain tore through his shoulder. On a curse, he rolled onto his back, and his body nudged against a soft, pliable form.
What in blazes?
Groggy, he opened his eyes and sat up. Sunlight streamed into a cave he had nay memory of entering. Ashes of a recently used fire smoldered a short distance away. And at his side slept an incredibly beautiful woman.
A woman he'd never seen in his life.
Hair the color of honey tumbled in a silken mass around her, and her full mouth was curved into a smile as her lithe, shapely body pressed against his. A sword's wrath, who was she? He would have remembered bedding such an enchantress.
More importantly, how had either of them ended up here?
He fought past the pain in his shoulder as he searched his blurred thoughts to remember. Like a merciless assault, images knifed through his mind. An oath sworn to Douglas, as his friend lay dying, that he'd deliver the writ to King Philip. Being pursued by the Duke of Renard's men. An arrow shot into his shoulder and his narrow escape.
Like a madman, Colyne grabbed his undershirt, thankful when his fingers bumped the concealed document. Careful to keep quiet, he withdrew the bound leather and removed the rolled parchment.
Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, Guardian of the Realm of Scotland's seal remained intact.
Grief burned his throat at thoughts of Douglas. He hadna even had time to bury his friend.
A sword's wrath, his life wouldna be given in vain.
The writ to King Philip of France would be delivered!
The woman at his side released a long sigh.
He shot her a hard look. Had she seen the writ? If so, she'd left it untouched. Where had the lass come from?
Her simple garb attested to her life as a beggar. Or mayhap a servant. From her healthy glow, he'd choose the latter. Had she stumbled across him while out gathering herbs for her lord and saved his life? If so, he would thank her. But before he allowed her to leave, he would discover whether she had seen the Guardian of Scotland's document.
After concealing the writ, Colyne nudged the lass.
Her nose twitched in a delicate flare and she continued to sleep.
“Lass,” he muttered, mistrust roughening his words.
Qu'est-ce que tu fais
?” she murmured.
Stunned, he narrowed his gaze. What was a Frenchwoman doing in the dense forests of the Highlands? Disquiet edged through him. The French king's bastard daughter had been abducted by the English duke's knights and hidden in the Highlands. This was the very reason he carried the writ to King Philip, to explain the Scots were nae behind this treachery.
Could this be Lady Marie Serouge?
Again, he assessed the dozing lass in her mundane garb. He scoffed. Aye, as if the English duke would allow his captive, dressed in little better than rags, to be roaming the hills without an escort. A wash of dizziness swept him, and Colyne struggled to clear his mind. Wherever the Duke of Renard held the king's bastard daughter, she was well guarded.
As if a fairy summoned, the woman's brow wrinkled in a delicate arch as she lifted her lids. Eyes the color of moss leveled on him and cleared. Surprise, then fear widened them.
The lass shoved to her knees and started to scramble back, but Colyne caught her wrist. “I am nae going to harm you.”
“Release me,” she gasped.
“You tended me?” he asked, his voice rough with impatience.
Shrewd eyes studied him as if deliberating the wisdom of a reply.
“Fine, then. First, promise nae to run.” His shoulder ached from his meager exertion, and he inhaled a deep breath to remain alert as her image began to blur. Slowly, his vision cleared. Bedamned, with legs as long as a king's prized filly if she fled, Colyne doubted he'd be able to pursue her, much less remain conscious. Before he passed out, he needed to discover whether she posed any kind of threat to his mission.
She angled her jaw. “I could have left you alone and injured.”
Which spoke well for her character. Or indicated her presence here was planned. “But you did nae.”
.” Her gaze flicked to his fingers curled around her wrist. “Now release me.”
“I will have your word that you will nae run.”
After a long moment, she nodded. “You have my word.”
Colyne let her go and braced his hand on the ground. “Why did you care for me?”
“You were hurt.”
The sincerity of her words surprised him. “Most would have left a wounded man to die. Especially a stranger.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I explained my reason.”
A reason that invited more questions.
“You need to rest, monsieur. If you move about, you will reopen your wound. Please. The arrow went deep. Your shoulder will take time to heal.”
Time he didna have.
An angry mark across her cheek caught his attention. Colyne skimmed his finger atop the darkening skin, curious as she jerked back. “You have a bruise.”
Her lashes lowered to shield her eyes, but nae before he saw the fear. “ 'Tis naught.”
“You have been hit,” he stated, incensed that any would dare touch this gentle woman who had offered aid to a stranger?
“ I . . . fell.”
Fell his arse. By her evasiveness, neither would she admit the truth. Colyne studied her, and his gut assured him that something was amiss. Long ago he'd learned to heed his instincts. Until they parted, he would keep her under close watch.
The woman started to rise.
He caught her arm. “Your name?”
At the dictatorial slap of her words, he obeyed and she stood. What the devil? He shoved to his feet, wove, and steadied himself. She'd spoken to him as a woman used to giving orders and having them followed.
Was she in league with Renard? Colyne's suspicions grew tenfold. Had she turned against her king and joined England's fight to claim Scotland as its own? If so, why hadna she broken the writ's seal, read the contents, and then carried it to the English duke while Colyne lay unconscious?
He shoved to his feet and stepped closer, dwarfing her in his shadow. “Who are you?” At her hesitation, he shot her a fierce scowl. “You will answer me!”
“IâI am a missionary,” Marie blurted out.
. Though the knight's frown declared his confusion, judging from the intelligence in his eyes, he wasn't a fool. But a servant of God was the first logical explanation that had come to mind.
“A missionary?” the Scot repeated, his brogue rich with doubt.
Please believe me!
“A French missionary in the Scottish Highlands?” He shot a skeptical glance toward the cave's opening, then back to her. “Alone?”
She fought for calm. What more could she say to convince him? Though he looked like a god, with his eyes the deep blue of the ocean and his cheeks hinting of dimples, the warrior's sharp gaze assured her that he was not a man to trifle with.
“I am waiting,” he stated, his tone dry.
“It is difficult for me.”
His expression darkened. “I am nae going anywhere.”
Neither, it appeared, was she. At least not until he'd received an explanation that left him satisfied. Once she'd appeased him, she would allow him another day to recover. Then, that night while he slept, she'd slip away. Though with the men scouring the area to find her, travel would be difficult.
Through lowered lashes, she regarded the fierce knight, a man with the power to intimidate and the strength to back his claims. His finely crafted mail, which she'd set against the rocky wall of the cave, bespoke wealth. Surely he carried the funds necessary to arrange for her passage to France.
Was this man too dangerous to risk not only her life with but the safety of Scotland as well? Perhaps 'twould be better if she traveled alone.
But as a Scot, he would know the terrain and, if necessary, places to hide. In addition, his presence would add another layer of safety. The knights searching for her sought a woman alone. Regardless, she must keep the truth of her royal lineage hidden. Though a Scot, he could still be an enemy of her country.
“While returning from Beauly Priory, our party was attacked and our people were slaughtered.” Marie closed her eyes against his stare, her pain real in that if she failed to reach her father and tell him who'd abducted her, more Scots would die.
Marie lifted her lashes and found his gaze skeptical, though not totally dismissive. “During the attack, I escaped,” she continued. “I was terrified.”
He nodded. “Aye, you would be.”
“IâI went back to . . .”
At her shudder, he lifted her chin, his eyes dark with regret. “Oh, God, lass. 'Tis nae the likes of what a woman should witness.”
Caught off guard by his sympathy, for a moment she leaned closer. Shaken to be offered trust when she'd earned none, she stumbled back. “I am sorry,” she said, fiercely regretting her lie. She despised untruths, but life had shown her the lengths to which people would go, lying, cheating, and murdering to achieve their goals.
“Do nae be.”
The sincere concern on his face tempted her to admit the truth, but she remained silent. She knew nothing about this warrior, except that his actions deemed him a man of compassion. Did his conduct extend to honor as well? “I must return home to my family.” Her quiet words echoed between them, and his gaze softened.
Hope ignited. “Then you will help me?”
The warmth in his expression faded to caution. “Help you?”
As you are aware, travel for a woman alone is dangerous.” Refusal crept into his eyes, and she spoke faster. “I only need your escort to the closest port. From there Iâ”
She touched his arm. “But you must.”
Dry amusement quirked his lips. “I must?” Blue eyes studied her with unapologetic interest. “Lass, you have a penchant for ordering people about.”
“I do not . . .” She withdrew her hand. Heat swept her cheeks. He was right. The woman he believed her to be would focus on serving those in need. She glanced toward the opening of the cave. Renard's men, along with miles of wilderness, stood between her and a port city. “The last few days have been terrifying.”
The truth. Her abduction, imprisonment, and learning of the English duke's plot to use her as a pawn in hopes her father would cease support to Scotland, had torn her life apart.
“I am distraught and am being impossibly rude.” She paused. “Forgive me.”
Pain flickered through the tiredness in his eyes. “That is the second time you have apologized to me, and with nay reason. I am the one who is sorry that you have been subjected to such carnage.”
“I . . . Thank you.” Moved by his genuine concern, she struggled as to what decision to make. However much she didn't wish to involve him, fate offered no other choice. Somehow she must convince him to escort her to the coast.
His brows furrowed in pain as he started to turn.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Honed muscles rippled as he leaned over to pick up his gambeson. “As much as I wish to rest, I canna.”
Embarrassed to find herself staring at the powerful display of strength, she turned away, but not before he caught her perusal. By the grace of Mary, she was acting as if she were a dim-witted maiden! Frustrated the man muddled her mind, Marie tugged the quilted garment from his hand and tossed it atop his mail. “You need to rest. You are pushing yourself far too fast.”
Mischief warmed his gaze, as if he were amused by her show of will. “I always take care with what I do, regardless the task.”
Awareness rippled across her skin at his claim. Of that she had no doubt. “I am going to pick some herbs that will help relieve your pain.” She walked toward the cave's entrance.
“I have yet to thank you for caring for me.” The softness in his voice had her halting at the timeworn entry. She didn't turn; though a stranger, something about him invited friendship, akin to trust. Neither of which she was in a position to give. “You are welcome.”
“You have nae told me your name.”
Her entire body tensed. Her name? Drawn by a force she couldn't name, she turned and faced him. A mistake.
As their eyes met, the warrior's gaze narrowed.
“My name is Alesia,” she blurted out. Panic swept her as she waited for the flicker of recognition.
After a long moment, he nodded.
She exhaled. Why had she worried? Few would know her second name, especially those in the Scottish Highlands, even more so a man who lived by the blade.
“Alesia. The name suits you.”
Her body shivered at how his deep burr cradled her name. As quickly, she dismissed the foolish notion. It was exhaustion, naught more. Curious, she arched a brow. “Suits me?”
He inclined his head, appreciation simmering in his gaze. “ 'Tis strong and beautiful.”
Unsure how to respond, she remained silent.
“Have you nay wish to know my name?”
The splash of humor in his eyes assured her that he was a man comfortable with teasing. “You must have sisters.”