Elizabeth English - The Borderlands 02 (7 page)

BOOK: Elizabeth English - The Borderlands 02
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"Stay here, love," she ordered Maeve.
"Quietly now, just as quiet as a mouse, until I come back."

"Aye, Mam," Maeve said, her eyes moving
toward the doorway of the chamber where Brodie slept. She put a finger to her
lips and nodded solemnly.

She'll be safe enough, Deirdre told herself, so long
as she keeps out of Brodie's way. Aye, today she will be safe, and perhaps
tomorrow, but what will become of Maeve when she grows to womanhood? She'll be
married off at her father's will, and I'll have no say at all.

What if Maeve is given to a man like Brodie?

I have to save her, Deirdre thought wildly. I'll send
her to my father—only for a visit—I can say 'tis for her health. If Father
writes and says she died, perhaps Brodie won't question overmuch... Despair
washed over her as she realized Brodie would never allow such a visit, not even
if Maeve's very life depended on it.

Unless, perhaps, Deirdre could provide him with the
son he craved. Then he might grant her this small thing.

"Deirdre
!
Damn your eyes, ye
lazy bitch, where the devil are ye?"

She started at the sound of Brodie's voice, her
dream-terror vivid in her mind. She remembered the rest of her dream and a hard
smile touched her lips. She was twenty years old, no child now, and the time
had come to accept things as they were.

There is no help for me, she thought, straightening
her shoulders. But 'tis not too late for Maeve. No matter what I have to do, I
will see she gets to Donegal. And once she is gone, I will see she never comes
back here again.

"I'm coming, Brodie," she called.

"Mousie," Maeve said, diving under the
coverlet.

"That's right," Deirdre said. "That's
my good little mousie. Stay here and if you're very quiet, I'll bring you a bit
of cheese." 

CHAPTER 8

 

"D
amn the man!" Ross Maxwell swore beneath his
breath. "He is a fool—"

"Quiet," Alistair snapped, crouching against
the outcropping of rock that shielded the two men from the fighting. "We
have our orders. Now wait for his signal."

The field below was filled with shouting men and the
clash of weapons echoed up the hillside.

"Pitching stones down on the Johnsons!" Ross
turned his head and spat into the river raging far below. "Like as not
we'll crush our own men and horses along with theirs."

"Aye, we might," Alistair agreed. "But
it's his battle, his command. Look sharp, lad—"

Ross whirled, sword in hand, to face the two Johnson
men who came around the bend, slipping on loose stone. Alistair sighed and held
his own weapon ready. Apparently Johnson had come up with the same plan as
Brodie Maxwell. Which just went to show that the two men were well matched—in
idiocy if nothing else.

Ross engaged the first of the Johnsons, leaving
Alistair the second. Good God, he was nothing but a child! Which was probably
why he had been sent up here instead of taking part in the battle below.

And that showed that Johnson at least had a bit more
sense than Brodie, who was wasting two good fighting men on a fool's errand.

Ross and the first man were slipping down the slope,
their blows falling wildly in all directions. Alistair sighed again and looked
at the frightened boy before him. Fifteen?  Sixteen?  His cheeks were downy
with his first growth of beard, but the eyes above were those of a terrified
child.

"Raise your sword, lad," Alistair said on an
exasperated breath. "Don't just stand there like a sheep to the
slaughter."

The boy lifted the heavy weapon and stood ready. "That's
right," Alistair said, feinting slowly to test the boy's mettle. He had no
intention of killing the child, but on the other hand, he did not mean to be so
careless that the boy killed him.

He felt as if he were back at home, lessoning one of
the young men in the yard. Back and forth they went until the boy began to gasp
and pant with weariness. Then Alistair disarmed him with one turn of his wrist.

The boy sank to his knees and closed his eyes.

And now what? Alistair wondered. Let the boy go and
he'd be bitterly shamed. No doubt he'd be armed again in no time, ready to
redeem his honor by engaging the next man he saw in battle. Like as not he'd be
dead by nightfall.

"Oh, get up," Alistair said impatiently. "Here—step
over to this tree. Have ye kinfolk to pay your ransom?"

"Nay," the boy said in a miserable whisper.

"Christ's blood, lad, ye mustn't say that! D'ye ken
naught about this business?" He regarded the boy through narrowed eyes,
then said, "I think I must have struck your head, no doubt your wits are addled.
Now, as I was saying, I'll hold you for ransom, for Johnson will surely pay to
have ye safe again." 

He glared at the boy, daring him to contradict, but he
stayed wisely silent as Alistair bound him to the tree, pulling the knots tight.
There. That should hold him for an hour or two. By the looks of what was
happening below, an hour would see the battle finished.

Ross Maxwell came breathless up the slope, wiping his
sweating brow. "That's done," he said cheerfully. "Now
what?"

Alistair glanced down to the field below. "Now we
wait for Brodie's signal."

"But we'll miss it all!"

"And if we leave now and Brodie signals, then
what? Orders are orders, my fine laddie, and I'll thank ye to remember
it."

Alistair spoke sharply, for in truth he agreed with
every word Ross spoke. Brodie had no idea how to lead his men. Imagine putting
him—Alistair Kirallen, a seasoned commander and an able swordsman—up here among
the rocks and stones! It was a calculated insult, to be sure, but it was the
kind of insult only a fool like Brodie would invent.

"Fine!" Ross flung himself down upon the
stony slope. "We wait."

Alistair stood, one hand shading his eyes as he
watched the battle below. "Here, now," he said. "It's coming
this way."

Ross sat up, his face brightening as he watched
Johnson's men scramble up the slope. And Brodie, who should have known better,
was leading his own men right after them.

"If we push the stone down it will take Maxwell,
too," Ross said, worried. "What's Brodie thinking to follow?"

"God only knows, lad," Alistair said. "Here,
now, stand ready—"

At his signal they leaped forward with a cry, taking
Johnson's lead men by surprise. They stepped back, loose shards of shale
slipping beneath their feet and carrying them right into Brodie's men.

Up and down the slope they fought as the sun rose to
its zenith and sparkled on the river far below. Without quite knowing how it
happened, Alistair found himself in command of a dozen men. Save for young Ross
they were all mercenaries like himself, many of them men he'd fought with—and
in some cases, against—before. They had abandoned Maxwell in disgust when he
ordered them to stand and fight on the slope of the hill, below Johnson's men. It
was an indefensible position, as was proved by the beating that the bulk of
Maxwell's men were taking.

Crouched in the lee of the highest rocks, Alistair
wiped his streaming forehead and surveyed the battle below.

One of the older men grunted. "Christ, just look
at that," he said, pointing toward the Maxwells on the hillside. "Where
the devil is Maxwell himself?" he asked, disgusted. "Worst day's work
I ever did, takin' siller from the man."

"Aye, well, let's see we all live to regret
it," Alistair said. "Go there—" he pointed toward and
outcropping just above Johnson's forces. "And wait for my signal. With any
luck we'll drive them right back down the hillside and home again."

Alistair waited as they made their way toward the
outcropping. From the corner of his eye he saw a deeper shadow move among the
trees behind him. Damnation, he'd forgotten the boy he'd tied to the tree.

He sprinted into the stand of trees. There he found
Brodie Maxwell himself, sword upraised as the terrified lad ducked futilely
behind a slender branch.

"Hold, Brodie!" Alistair cried. "That's
my prisoner."

"Prisoner?" Brodie roared. "Who gave ye
leave to be takin' any prisoners?"

"Christ's blood, he's but a child," Alistair
said, disgusted. "Let him be—or here, I'll turn him loose. Go," he
ordered the boy, jerking his head toward the path as he sliced through the
ropes.

But even as the boy began to run, Brodie put out a
foot and sent him flying. He landed inches from the cliff's edge and lay
gasping, the wind knocked from him.

"Brodie, that's enough!" Alistair cried,
really angry now, but had no time for more as Brodie Maxwell raised his sword
again and rushed forward. Even as the sword began its swift descent the boy
twisted desperately, knocking Brodie's feet from under him. As Alistair
watched, astonished, the force of Brodie's charge carried him straight over the
cliff's edge.

Running forward, Alistair saw Brodie fly through the
air with a wailing cry. Alistair cried out himself as the man struck against
the side of the cliff, bounced off, and vanished with a splash into the river
far below.

CHAPTER 9

 

D
eirdre rose stiffly from her knees and drew her cloak
around her as the priest began his final blessing. Poor old man, she thought
with distant sympathy. His stained and mended surplice gave but little
protection from the cold. The end of his long nose was red and his words were
visible things, coming from his mouth in little puffs. Deirdre shivered,
glancing about the dank and miserable chapel of Cranston Keep. Neither Brodie
nor his father had ever seen fit to waste a single coin on a place that held so
little interest for them.

But even Maxwell's laird could not avoid his chapel
altogether now. He was not here today, which was odd, for he himself had
ordered daily masses for Brodie's safe return. Day after day the household had
crowded into the tiny chapel, and though Maxwell had ordered braziers to be lit
at every corner, their warmth was quickly dissipated by the ever-present
drafts.

Deirdre had spent the fortnight past surrounded by
people, all of them with heads bent in prayer. She wondered how many were
praying that Brodie might return in good health, and how many, like herself,
were besieging God with heartfelt petitions that he would not come back at all.

As the priest hurried through the mass, Deirdre tried
to order her jumbled thoughts into coherent prayer. It was wrong, she knew, to
be praying that Brodie might be dead. Yet it would be a lie to ask for anything
else.

"Dear St. Brighid," she pleaded silently,
"You know what is in my heart. All I ask is the strength to bear God's
will." 

And that was the best that she could do. Brodie's God
was a stern and fearsome stranger, but St. Brighid would understand.
She
would know that Deirdre was suspended on the edge of hope and fear, so tightly
strung that she would shatter at a touch.

The three men who had witness Brodie's fall all agreed
there was little hope he had survived it. As the days passed, the household
began to change "little hope" to "no hope at all,"  but
Deirdre did not dare believe it. In her dreams Brodie came back again, skin
livid, eyes blank and empty, water weed tangled in his dripping hair. And his
anger had been terrible.

Brodie could still return. Any moment now, he could walk
into the hall and obliterate her every hope of freedom. She would not—she
could
not start believing herself a widow, for if it came to naught, she would run
mad.

As she left the chapel, a man was waiting by the nave,
hood drawn far across his face. But even before Deirdre saw his face, she knew
him. Thank you, St. Brighid, she thought with a dizzying wave of relief. All
will be well, everything will be all right now that Alistair is here.

She stopped short, hardly noticing the others passing
by her, glad she had a moment to compose herself before she spoke to him. He
might have news, she told herself sternly. It was for that she felt the
gladsome leaping of her pulse.

As the others passed, she drew a bit aside. Alistair
waited until they were alone before he spoke.

"I've come from Maxwell," he said. "He
has called off the search."

"Called off?" Deirdre repeated, not daring
to believe that the words meant what they seemed to mean.

"Aye. He's given up on finding Brodie's body. He
will be naming Kinnon as his heir."

What would Kinnon think of that? she wondered numbly. Would
he be glad or sorry? Kinnon was always so secretive that it was impossible to
guess. He would have to marry now, she thought, and wondered who he would
choose...

Then her thoughts stopped with a jerk. What difference
did it make to her what happened here now? She was free. I can go home, she
thought, the blood draining from her face as the reality hit her. Home to
Ireland, to Donegal, her family, where she and Maeve would be safe.

"Lady—" Alistair said, concerned, putting
strong hands on her shoulders as she swayed. "Are ye all right?  Come, sit
down, I know this must be a shock—"

A
shock
?  Deirdre felt the wild laughter rising
to her throat and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Alistair drew her close and she leaned her head
against his shoulder, part of her mind noting that they fit together perfectly,
just as she had known they would. He held her as her body shook with helpless
laughter that quickly changed to tears.

"Lady—Deirdre—God's blood, I'm so sorry. I should
not have told ye like this—"

"Oh, yes," she gasped. "Better you—better
here—than before them all—"

His cloak was rough against her cheek and he smelled
of woodsmoke and clean fresh air. When he bent to her, murmuring comforting
words in his deep soft voice, his hair brushed her cheek. She closed her eyes
and leaned against him, and after a time she grew calmer.

"There," she said at last, drawing a
hitching breath and giving him the best smile she could manage. "It's all
right. I'll be fine now."

"Will you?"

She looked into his eyes and saw he was still worried,
still blaming himself for her outburst. "Thank you for telling me,"
she said. "I'm glad you did."

She realized that his arms were still clasped around
her waist and knew she should step back. Instead she lifted her face to his and
closed her eyes.

"Deirdre," he said roughly. "I must go—and—and
you—"

His breath was warm against her lips. They were so
close she could feel his heart racing as wildly as her own. She lifted herself,
felt her mouth brush his, and then with a muffled groan he pulled her more
tightly into his arms and kissed her.

It was very different from the brush of mouth on mouth
that he had given her on Beltane Eve. This was no dream, but very real, a
shattering burst of sensation that flooded her with heat. His beard was rough
against her cheek, his lips firm and supple as they parted hers. She wound her
arms around his neck and returned his kiss with desperate need.

When he drew back at last, Deirdre sighed, nestled
close in the safety of his arms, his lips moving against her brow, her neck. How
perfect, she thought drowsily. How right. Can this really be happening to
me
?

Stop, a voice said in her mind. It was a cold voice,
very clear, entirely without emotion. Here you are on the brink of freedom, and
what are you doing?  Behaving like some witless wanton, throwing yourself at
this man—a banished man, an outcast—who can bring you nothing but unhappiness
and disgrace! What kind of mother could so soon forget her daughter's future?

She pulled away abruptly. "I am sorry," she
heard the cold voice say. "I was—upset."

"Think nothing of it, lady."

Alistair's voice was as impersonal as if she had
committed some trifling offense; trodden on his toe, perhaps, or neglected to
pass him the salt. But his eyes were bright with the same pain she was feeling
now, the same aching loss and emptiness.

She pulled on her gloves, smoothing each finger
carefully, trying to match his outward composure.

"Will you be staying?" she asked politely.

"Nay."

"But—" she stopped, controlled herself, and
went on calmly. "Where do you go from here?"

He shrugged. "Wherever the wind blows me, I
suppose."

Only a man could afford to be so careless! So long as
he had that bright sword to protect him, Alistair could come or go exactly as
he pleased. But Deirdre had no such freedom. She was a woman, alone and
unprotected, a dangerous thing to be in this time and place.

The Normans had succeeded in imposing their laws and
customs in parts of Ireland, but they had never gained a firm foothold in
Donegal. There Deirdre would have at least some standing under law. But she was
not in Ireland now. She was in Scotland, a country that was not only
indifferent to women, but positively hostile.

Here she had no rights but those her husband—or now,
his father—might grant her. If she did not succeed in getting Maeve to Ireland,
her daughter would grow to womanhood in this hateful place, forever the
property of one man or another.

Love might be fine for songs and stories, Deirdre
thought, but this was real life. Her life. And she alone would steer her course.
Never again would any man have the slightest influence on her decisions. She
would be cool and rational, and her choices would be based on reason, not the
ebb and flow of her desire.

"God keep you, lady," Alistair said formally.
He bowed, turned, and walked from the chapel.

She watched him go, blinking furiously against the
weak and foolish tears that stung her eyes. Well, at least she was safe now
from her own ridiculous fancies. Having found and lost Alistair Kirallen, no
man would ever tempt her into folly again.

BOOK: Elizabeth English - The Borderlands 02
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