Authors: Hannah Howell
Cormac grinned as he unbuckled his sword, tossed it aside, then yanked off his boots. “Would ye belittle the first poetry this poor mon has e’er uttered?”
“Nay,” Elspeth whispered, praying that he was not about to give her yet another lesson in the torturous art of being aroused, then left unsatisfied, as she welcomed him into her arms. “Was that what that was?”
He kissed her and she quickly wrapped her arms around him, wondering if this time she could hold him until they were both beyond reason.
“My bonny Elspeth,” Cormac murmured against her throat as he unlaced her chemise, “ye should push me away.”
“Why? Ye always seem to manage that all on your own.”
“Nay, not this time.”
“Are ye sure?”
Cormac crouched over her as he eased her thin chemise off her shoulders. “Oh, aye, my green-eyed temptress. This time only ye can stop this.”
Seeing the hungry way he stared at her, she threaded her fingers through his hair and gently tugged him closer. “Then there will be nay stopping this time….”
Copyright © 2000 by Hannah Howell
Published by E-Reads in cooperation with Zebra Books. All rights reserved.
Cormac Armstrong almost laughed as the angry childish voices halted his slow, resigned descent into unconsciousness. It seemed a cruel jest of fate that he would slowly bleed his young life away to the sharp sounds of bairns taunting each other. The sound filled him with an overwhelming melancholy. It stirred memories of all the times he had quarreled with his brothers, painfully bringing him to the realization that he would never see them again.
“Ye are ugly!”
“Oh, aye? Hah! Weel, I say that ye are ugly, too, and stupid!”
The sound of a small fist hitting a small body was swiftly followed by the raucous sound of children fighting. More young voices cut through the chill, damp morning air as the other children cheered on their selected champions. It sounded as if there was a veritable horde of children on the other side of the thicket he hid behind. Cormac prayed that they would stay where they were, that none of them would cross to his side of the thicket and innocently become involved in his desperate troubles. A heartbeat later, he cursed, for he realized his prayers were to go unanswered.
Huge green eyes and a mass of thick raven curls were the first thing he saw as a small, thin girl wriggled through the thicket and knelt at his side. She was an enchanting child and Cormac desperately wished she would go far away. He did not think his enemies were still following his trail, but he could be wrong, and this fey child would be brutally pushed aside by them, perhaps even killed or injured.
“Go, lassie,” he ordered, his voice little more than a hoarse, trembling whisper. “Take all your wee companions and flee this place. Quickly.”
“Ye are bleeding,” she said after looking him over.
His eyes widened slightly as she began to smooth her tiny, soft hand over his forehead. Her voice was surprisingly deep for such a wee lass, almost sultry.
More voice than girl
, he mused.
“Aye,” he agreed, “and I will soon be dead, which isnae a sight for those bonny big eyes.”
“Nay, ye willnae die. My mither can heal most any hurt, ye ken. I am Elspeth Murray.”
“And I am Cormac Armstrong.” He was startled when he found the strength to shake the tiny hand she thrust at him. “Ye must nay tell your mother about me.”
“Ye need my mither to make ye stop bleeding.”
“Lass, I am bleeding because someone is trying verra hard to kill me.”
“They say I am a murderer.”
“Then my mither can help ye.”
Cormac desperately wanted to allow the child to fetch her mother to heal his wounds. He did not want to die. He certainly did not want to die for a crime he had not committed, at least not before he could clear that black stain from his name. It was all so
unfair, he thought, then grimaced. He realized that he sounded very much like a child himself.
“Ah, poor laddie,” she murmured. “Ye are in pain. Ye need quiet. I will tell the bairns to hush.” Before he could protest, she rose and walked back to the edge of the thicket, thrusting herself partway through. “Ye can all just shut your wee mouths,” Elspeth yelled in an astoundingly loud, commanding voice. “There is a poor mon bleeding o’er here and he needs some peace. Payton, take your wee thin legs and run. Find Donald or my fither. Get someone, for this laddie sore needs help.”
The only thing Cormac could think of to say when she returned to his side was, “I am nay a laddie. I am a mon, a hunted mon.” He softly cursed as he watched other children begin to wriggle their way through the thicket.
“How old are ye?” Elspeth asked as she began to smooth her small hand over his forehead again.
“Seventeen.” Cormac wondered how such a tiny hand could be so soothing.
“I am nine today. ’Tis why so many Murrays are gathered together. And ye
a lad. My fither says anyone beneath one and twenty years is a lad or a lass and some are ne’er any more, e’en if they grow as old and big as he is. ’Tis what he told my cousin Cordell when he turned sixteen and was boasting of what a fine, grand stallion of a mon he was.”
“Aye,” agreed an amber-eyed child who was even smaller than Elspeth. She sat down next to him. “Uncle Balfour says a lad needs to gain his spurs, get himself a wife and bairns, and bring honor to both duties ere he can prance about and declare himself a mon. Why is he bleeding, Elspeth?”
“Because he has a few muckle great holes in him, Avery.” Elspeth briefly grinned when the other children giggled.
“I can see that. How did he get hurt?”
“Someone is trying to make him pay for a murder he didnae commit.”
“Lass”—Cormac glanced around at what was an astonishing array of eleven beautiful children, then fixed his gaze upon Elspeth—“I said I was innocent, but ye cannae be sure I was telling ye the truth.”
“Aye, ye are,” Elspeth said firmly.
“No one can lie to Elspeth,” said a tall, slender boy crouched to the left of Cormac. “I am Ewan, her brother, and ’tis a most troublesome thing, I can tell ye.”
Cormac almost smiled, but then fixed a stern gaze on the lad, who looked to be a little older than Elspeth. “Then she will also ken that I speak the truth when I tell her I am naught but trouble—deadly trouble—and that she should just leave me to my fate. Ye should all hie away home ere the danger sniffing at my heels reaches your gates.”
The boy opened his mouth to speak, then rapidly closed it. Cormac followed the lad’s wide gaze to his sister and his own eyes widened slightly. She was sitting very straight, her beautiful eyes fixed unwaveringly upon her hapless brother. There was a very stern, very adult look upon her small face. Cormac could easily sympathize with the boy’s reluctance to argue with that look.
“Ewan, why dinnae ye and the other laddies see if ye can find something to make a litter,” Elspeth said. “Oh, and ere ye skip off to do as ye are told, ye can give me that wineskin ye took from Donald.”
“I ne’er,” the boy began to protest. Then he cursed and handed the wineskin to
Elspeth before he and the other boys disappeared.
“There is no real harm in the lad testing his head for wine, lass,” Cormac said.
“I ken it and Donald puts a hearty brew in his wineskin, but I am thinking ye will find more use of it. Ewan can test the strength of his innards for this potion some other day.”
She revealed a surprising strength as she slipped one thin arm around his shoulders and helped him sit up enough to take a drink. It was not only surprise that made him cough a little, however, as he took a drink. Wine did not burn its way down your throat and spread such warmth throughout your body.
“Avery, ye go and fetch me some water,” Elspeth ordered. Then, as soon as her cousin slipped away, she looked at the two remaining girls. “Bega, Morna, one of ye will give me your shift skirt so that I may bind this laddie’s wounds. S’truth, I shall need a good piece of both.”
“Why dinnae ye use your own?” grumbled the small fair-haired girl. “I will be scolded.”
“Nay for helping a mon stop his life’s blood from soaking the ground, Bega.”
As the two little girls struggled to tear their shifts, Cormac looked at Elspeth. “Lass, this is no chore for a wee child.”
“Weel, it willnae be fun, but we cannae be sure how long it will take Payton to bring help, so we had best stop this bleeding if we can. My mither is a healer. I ken a few things. Have some more wine.”
“This isnae wine,” he murmured, then took another drink. She smiled and he thought, a little dazedly, that she would be a very beautiful woman when she finished growing.
“I ken it. So do most others. But Donald’s wife had an evil-tempered drunkard for a father, and she gets most pious when she thinks her mon is drinking the
. So he hides it in his wineskin. Now, we all ken that our Donald will ne’er become a drunkard. He doesnae have that weakness in him. But he does like a warming drink now and then or e’en a hearty drink with the other men, so we all ignore his wee lie. I think his wife kens all of that, too, but the wee lie helps her keep her fear from making her be shrewish toward her poor mon.”
“If ye have Donald’s wineskin, then he cannae be verra far away. Nay, nor would anyone let so many bairns run about unguarded. So, lass, where is Donald?”
“Ah, weel, I fear we were mean to the poor mon. We slipped under his guard. Aye, I think we were too mean, for we have been gone from Donncoill for a verra long time and my fither may come looking for us. That means that soon poor old Donald will hear a question he has come to dread.”
“Where are they, Donald?”
Donald shuddered and tried to stand firm before the bellowing laird of Donncoill and his two glaring brothers. Balfour looked ready to beat him senseless and his brothers, Nigel and Eric, looked eager to hold him down while Balfour did so. Donald heartily wished he had not lost his wineskin along with the children, for he could benefit from a long, bracing drink at the moment.
“I dinnae ken,” he replied and hastily stepped back from the palpable fury of the Murray brothers. “They were with me one moment and gone the next. I have been
searching for them for nearly an hour.”
“Our bairns have been out of your sight for an hour?”
Before Donald could think of any reply to that softly hissed question, young Payton trotted up and grabbed his father, Nigel, by the arm, saying, “Ye must come with me now, Papa.”
Nigel grasped his young son by his thin shoulders. “Has something happened to the bairns?”
“Nay, we are all hale.” He glanced at a pale Donald. “Sorry for slipping away from you.”
“Never mind that now, son. Where are the others?” Nigel asked.
“I will show you.” Payton started to lead the men back toward Elspeth and the other children. “Elspeth found a bleeding mon and she sent me to find help.”
Nigel cast one quick glance at his two frowning brothers. There were a lot of reasons for a man to be lying wounded in the remote corners of Murray lands. Few of those reasons were good ones. Nigel urged his son to hurry as Donald caught the reins of their horses and followed on behind.
“Sorry to have hurt ye, Cormac,” Elspeth said as she dampened a scrap of linen and bathed the sweat from his face, “but I think I have eased the bleeding a wee bit.”
“Aye, ye did a verra fine job, lass,” he struggled to say.
“My mither will have to stitch the wounds on your side and on your leg.”
“Lass, I cannae thank ye enough, but will ye nay heed me and go? I cannae be sure I have slipped free of the men hunting me and ’twould sore pain me to see ye hurt if they came here and found me. They would hurt ye and the others.”
“I did heed your warning. ’Tis why Avery, Morna, and Bega are keeping a verra close watch.”
“Ye are a stubborn lass.”
“Aye, I have been scolded for it a time or two. Ye need help and I mean to give it to you.”
“I am a hunted—”
“Aye, I ken it. My aunt Gisele, Avery’s mither, was hunted, too, and we helped her. She was wrongly accused of a murder, too, so we ken that someone saying ye did it and trying to make ye pay for the crime doesnae make it all true.”
Before Cormac could recover from his shock over that revelation and continue the argument, Avery appeared at their side and announced, “Our fithers are coming.”
The child had barely finished speaking when Cormac found himself staring up at three hard-faced, well-armed men. He instinctively reached for his sword only to find it gone. Cormac inwardly grimaced when the small boy who had arrived with the men handed his sword over to a tall, amber-eyed man. He knew that he had no strength left to defend himself and that he could have seriously erred by drawing his sword on men who might well help him. Nevertheless, he did not like the fact that he had been so neatly disarmed by a mere child. As if to add insult to injury, his tiny, green-eyed savior collected the knife tucked inside his boot and handed it to the tall, broad-shouldered man with brown hair and brown eyes; then she returned to gently bathing his face.
Balfour Murray looked down at his small daughter. “Ye slipped away from poor Donald.”
“Aye, I did,” she replied and idly handed a grumbling Donald his wineskin.
“Ye ken that ye shouldnae do that.”
“Aye, but I fear the naughtiness o’ertakes me sometimes.”
“Weel, the next time the naughtiness starts to o’ertake ye, try to recall that ’twill be followed by a harsh punishment.” Balfour looked around, seeing only the four lasses. “Where are the rest?”
“Making a litter for this lad,” Elspeth replied.
“Do ye expect me to take him back to Donncoill?”
“Ye are cluttering up my lands with a vast array of the broken and the lame, lass.”
“He isnae lame, just bleeding.”
Balfour stared down at the youth his daughter was so tenderly caring for. Thick, dark russet hair and clear blue eyes made for a striking combination. The boy’s features were well cut and unmarred. His body was long and youthfully lean, but it held the promise that he would become a strong man. If looks carried any weight, Balfour suspected everyone would readily call the lad friend and welcome him. Elspeth might be only nine, but Balfour could not help wondering if, this time, his daughter was acting upon more than her usual tendency to clasp all hurt creatures to her heart. The youth of the lad made Balfour feel inclined to help him without question, but he forced himself to be cautious.
“I am Sir Balfour Murray, laird of Donncoill, and these are my brothers, Sir Nigel and Sir Eric.” He nodded first to the man on his left and then to the man on his right. “Who are ye, lad, and why are ye bleeding on this remote part of my lands?” Balfour demanded, not revealing even the smallest hint of mercy.
“I am Cormac Armstrong, sir, and here is where I fell as I tried to reach my kinsmen to the south,” Cormac replied.
“Where is your horse?”
“Wandered off when I swooned and fell off his back.”
“Who cut ye and why?”
“I am being hunted by the kinsmen of a mon I have been accused of murdering.” Cormac sighed when all three men gripped their swords and eyed him with renewed suspicion.