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By Hannah Howell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Hannah Howell
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Scotland, Spring 1475
What was an angel doing standing next to Brother Matthew? Liam thought as he peered through his lashes at the couple frowning down at him. And why could he not fully open his eyes? Then the pain hit, and he groaned. Brother Matthew and the angel bent closer.
"Do ye think he will live?" asked Brother Matthew.
"Aye," replied the angel, "though I suspicion he will wish he hadnae for a wee while."
Strange that an angel should possess a voice that made a man think of fire-lit bedchambers; soft, unclothed skin; and thick furs, Liam mused. He tried to lift his hand, but the pain of even the smallest movement proved too much to bear. He felt as if he had been trampled by a horse. Mayhap several horses. Very large horses.
"He is a bonnie lad," said the angel as she gently smoothed one small, soft hand over Liam's forehead.
"How can ye tell that he is bonnie? He looks as if someone staked him to the ground and rode over him with a herd of horses."
Brother Matthew and he had always thought alike in many ways, Liam recalled. He was one of the few men Liam had missed after leaving the monastery. He now missed the touch of the angel's soft hand. For the brief time it had brushed against his forehead, that light touch had seemed to smooth away some of his pain.
"Aye, he does that," replied the angel. "And yet, one can still see that he is tall, lean, and weel-formed."
"Ye shouldnae be noticing such things!"
"Wheesht, Cousin, I am nay blind."
"Mayhap not, but 'tis still wrong. And, he isnae at his best now, ye ken."
"Och, nay, that is for certain. Howbeit, I am thinking that his best is verra good, aye? Mayhap as good as our cousin Payton, do ye think?"
Brother Matthew made a very scornful noise. "Better. Truth tell, 'tis why I ne'er believed he would stay with us."
Why should his appearance make someone think him a bad choice for the religious life? Liam did not think that was a particularly fair judgment, but could not seem to give voice to that opinion. Despite the pain he was in, his thoughts were clear enough. He just seemed to be unable to voice them or to make any movement to indicate that he heard these people discussing him. Even though he could look at them through his lashes, his eyes were obviously not opening enough to let them know he was awake.
"Ye dinnae think he had a true calling?" asked the angel.
"Nay," Brother Matthew replied. "Oh, he liked the learning weel enough, was verra quick and bright, but we could only teach him so much here. We are but a small monastery, nay a rich one and nay a great teaching place. I think, too, that he found this place too quiet, too peaceful. He missed his family. I have met his kinsmen, and I can understand. A large, loud, somewhat, weel, untamed lot of men they are. The learning offered eased that restlessness in Liam for a while, but it wasnae enough in the end. The quiet routine, the sameness of the days began to wear upon his spirit, I think."
Liam was a little surprised at how well his old friend knew and understood him. He had been restless, still was, in some ways. The quiet of the monastery, the rigid schedule of the monastic life had begun to press in upon him and feel more smothering than comforting. He had missed his family. For a moment, he was glad that he seemed unable to speak for he feared he would be asking for them now like some forlorn child.
"'Tis hard," said the angel. "I was most surprised that ye settled into the life so verra weel. But ye have a true, deep calling, dinnae ye?"
"Aye, I do," Brother Matthew replied softly. "I did e'en as a child. But, ne'er think I dinnae miss all of ye, Keira. I did and do most painfully at times, but there is a brotherhood here, a family of sorts. Yet, I will probably visit again soon. I have begun to spend a great deal of time wondering how the bairns have grown, if everyone is still hale and strong, and many another sort of thing. Letters dinnae tell all."
"Nay, they dinnae." Keira sighed. "I have missed them all too, and I have been gone for but a six month."
Keira, Liam repeated the name in his mind. A fine name. He tried to move his arm despite the pain and felt a twinge of panic when it would not respond to his command. When he realized he was bound to the bed, his unease grew even stronger. Why would they do that to him? Why did they not wish him to move? Were his injuries so dire? Was he wrong to think he had been given aid? Had he actually been made a prisoner? Even as those questions spun through his mind, he fought past his pain enough to tug against his bonds. A groan escaped him as that pain quickly and fiercely swept through his body from head to toe. He stilled when a pair of small, soft hands touched him, one upon his forehead and one upon his chest.
"I think he begins to wake, Cousin," Keira said. "Hush, sir. Be at peace."
"Tied." Liam hissed the word out from between tightly gritted teeth, the pain caused by speaking that one small word telling him that his face had undoubtedly taken a severe beating. "Why?"
"To keep ye still, Liam," Brother Matthew said. "Keira doesnae think anything is broken, save for your right leg, but ye were thrashing about so much, it worried us some."
"Aye," agreed Keira. "Ye were beat near to death, sir. 'Tis best if ye remain verra still so as not to add to your injuries or pain. Are ye in much pain?"
Liam muttered a fierce curse at what he considered a very stupid question. He heard Brother Matthew gasp in shock. To his surprise, he heard Keira laugh softly.
"'Twas indeed a foolish question," she said, laughter still tinting her sultry voice. "Ye dinnae seem to have a spot upon ye that isnae brilliant with bruising. Aye, and your right leg was broken. 'Tis a verra clean break, and I have set it After three days, there is still no sign of poison in the wound or in the blood, so it should heal verra weel."
"Liam, 'tis Brother Matthew. Keira and I have brought ye to the wee cottage at the edge of the monastery's lands. The brothers wouldnae allow her to tend to your wounds within the monastery, I fear." He sighed. "They werenae too happy with her presence e'en though she was weel hidden away in the guest quarters. Brother Paul was particularly agitated."
"Agitated?" Keira muttered. "Cousin Elspeth would say he—"
"Aye," Brother Matthew hastily interrupted, "I ken what our cousin Elspeth would say. I think she has lived too long amongst those unruly Armstrongs. She has gained far too free a tongue for a proper lady."
Keira made a rude noise. "My, but ye have become verra pious, Cousin."
"Of course I have. I am a monk. We are trained to be pious. Now, I can help ye give Liam some potion or change his bandages if ye wish, but then I must return to the monastery."
"Ah, weel then, best see if he needs to relieve himself," Keira said. "I will just step outside so that ye can see to that. Now that he is waking, 'tis best, I think. I shall just run up to the monastery's garden and collect a few herbs. I shall be but a few moments."
"What do ye mean now that he is waking?" demanded Brother Matthew, but then he grunted with irritation when the only reply he got was the door closing behind Keira as she hurried away. "Wretched wee lass."
"Cousin?" Liam asked, realizing that not only was his throat injured but his jaw and mouth as well.
"Cousin? Oh, aye, the lass is my cousin. One of a vast horde of cousins, if truth be told. A Murray, ye ken?"
"'Tis what I am, aye. Her grandmother was one too. Now, I do fear that nay matter how gentle I am, this is going to hurt."
It did. Liam was sure he screamed at one point, and that only increased his pain. He welcomed the blackness when it swept over him, as he suspected the continuously apologizing Brother Matthew did.
"Oh, dear, he looks a wee bit paler," Keira said as she set the herbs she had collected down on a table and moved to stand at the side of the small bed Liam was tied to.
"He still suffers a great deal of pain, and I fear I added to it," said Brother Matthew.
"Ye couldnae help it, Cousin. He is better, nay doubt about it, but such injuries will be slow to heal. There truly isnae a part of this mon that isnae hurt. 'Tis a true miracle that only his leg was broken."
"Are ye certain that he was only beaten? Or that he was e'en beaten at all?"
"Aye, Cousin, he was beaten. I have nay doubt about that, but he could have been tossed off that hill, too. Some of these injuries could be from the rocky slope his body would have fallen down and the equally rocky ground he landed on. I dinnae suppose he was able to tell ye what happened to him, was he?"
"Och, nay. Nay. He spoke but a word or two, then made a painful cry, and has been like this e'er since." Brother Matthew shook his head. "I wish I could understand this. Who would do such a terrible thing to the mon? I ken I havenae seen that much of the mon o'er the years since he left here, but he really wasnae the sort of mon to make enemies. Certainly nay such vicious ones."
Keira idly tested the strength of the bonds that held Liam still upon the bed and carefully studied the man. "I suspect jealousy is a problem he must often deal with."
Brother Matthew frowned at his cousin. She seemed far too interested in Liam Cameron, revealing more than just a healer's interest in a patient. A healer surely did not need to touch her patient's hair as often as Keira did Liam's thick, dark copper hair. Liam was certainly not looking his best, might well have lost a little of his beauty due to this vicious beating, but there was clearly enough allure left in his battered body and face to draw Keira's interest.
He tried to see Keira as a woman grown, not simply as the cousin he had played with as a child. His eyes widened slightly as he began to see that his cousin was no teasing child now, but a very attractive woman. She was small and slight, yet womanly, for her breasts were well shaped and full, and her hips were pleasingly curved. Her hair was a rich, shining black, and it hung in a thick braid to well past her tiny waist. That hair made her fair skin look even purer, soft milk white with the blush of good health. Keira's oval face held a delicate beauty, her nose being small and straight, with a hint of strength revealed in her small chin, and her cheekbones being high and finely shaped. What would catch a man's interest were her eyes. Set beneath gently arched dark brows and trimmed with thick, long lashes were a pair of deep green eyes. Those wide eyes bespoke innocence, but their depths held all the womanly mystery that could so intrigue a man. He was a little startled to realize that her mouth, slightly wide and full of lip, held the same contradictions. Her smile could be the epitome of sweet innocence, but Brother Matthew suddenly knew men of the world would quickly see the sensuality there as well. He suddenly feared it had been a serious error in judgment on his part to allow her to tend to a man like Liam Cameron.
"Ye have a rather fierce look upon your face, Cousin," Keira said as she moved to begin preparing more salve for Liam's injuries. "He willnae die, I promise ye. He will just be a verra long time in healing."
"I believe ye. 'Tis just that, weel, one thing Liam did find hard to abide about the monastic life was, weel, was ..."
"No lasses to smile at." She grinned at the severe frown he gave her for it sat so ill upon his boyishly handsome face. "I think, just as with our cousin Payton, this mon has a way with the lasses. Aye, and he need do nay more than smile at them."
"I dinnae think he e'en needs to smile," grumbled Brother Matthew.
"Nay, probably not. Come, Cousin, dinnae look so troubled. He is no danger to me now, is he? Aye, and e'en when he is healed enough to smile again, he can only be a danger to me if I wish him to be. Ye cannae think that with the kinsmen I have, I havenae been verra weel taught in the ways of men." She glanced toward Liam. "Is he a bad mon then? A vile, heartless seducer of innocents?"
Brother Matthew sighed. "Nay, I would ne'er believe such a thing of him."
"Then there is naught to fret o'er, is there? 'Tis best if we worry o'er our many other troubles. They are of more importance than whether or nay I can resist the sweet smiles of a bonnie lad. I have been here nigh on two months now, Cousin. There has been nary a sign of my enemy so I think, soon, I must try to get home to Donncoill."
"I ken it I am fair surprised none of your kinsmen have come round. 'Tis odd that they wouldnae start to wonder on how long ye have stayed at a monastery or e'en why the monks would allow it"
Keira pushed aside the pinch of guilt she felt for allowing him to continue to believe she had contacted her family when she had not. "Tisnae so verra unusual for guests, male or female, to linger in the guest quarters, and I paid weel for the privilege."
She smiled and patted his arm when he flushed with embarrassment over that hard truth. "It has been worth it. I needed to hide and mend my wounds, needed to o'ercome my grief and fear, and needed to be certain that when I did go home, I wasnae leading that murderous bastard Rauf right to the gates of Donncoill."
"Your family would protect ye, Keira. They would feel it their duty, their right, and willnae be pleased that ye denied them."
Keira winced. "I ken it, but I will deal with it. I also had to decide what to do. Duncan pulled a vow from me, and I had to think hard on how to fulfill it and how much it might cost me to do so."
"I ken that willnae be easy. Rauf is cunning and vicious. Yet ye swore to your husband ye would see to it that his people didnae suffer under Rauf's rule if he failed to win the battle that night. He failed. He died that night, Keira, so your vow to him is much akin to one made at a mon's deathbed. Ye have to do all ye can to fulfill it." He kissed her cheek and started for the door. "I will see ye in the morning. Sleep weel."
"Ye too, Cousin."
The moment he was gone, Keira sighed and sat down in the little chair next to Liam Cameron's bed. Her cousin made it all sound so simple. She dearly wished it were. The vow she had made to her poor, ill-fated husband weighed heavily on her mind and heart. So did the fates of the people of Ardgleann. Duncan had cared deeply for his people, a mixed lot of gentle and somewhat odd souls. It distressed her to think of how they must be suffering under Rauf's rule. She prayed for them every night, but she could not fully dispel the guilt she felt over running away. Although some of what Duncan had asked of her did not seem right, the people of Ardgleann could no longer wait for her to debate the moral complexities of it all. It was time, far past time, to do something.
She idly bathed Liam with a soft cloth and cool water. He did not really have a fever, but it seemed to make him rest more quietly. He was a strong man, and she felt certain he would continue to recover. By the time he was able to tend to himself, she had better have decided what to do about Ardgleann and Rauf. Once she knew why Liam had been hurt and was certain that no enemy hunted him still, she would leave him in the care of the monks and face her own destiny.
Keira felt an immediate pang at the thought of leaving the man and almost laughed at the absurdity of it. He was a mass of bruises, and had barely said three words in as many days. She supposed that she felt some odd bond with him because she had been the one to find him. In truth, she had been drawn to him by a strange blend of dreams and compulsion. It had been a little frightening for although similar experiences had occurred in the past, she had never seen things so clearly or felt as strongly. Even now, she could not shake the feeling that there was more to it all than helping him recover from his injuries.
"Foolishness," she muttered and shook her head as she patted him dry with a soft rag.
Perhaps she should send word to his people, she thought as she began to make a hearty broth to feed to him when he woke again. From what her cousin had told her, Sir Liam's kinsmen were more than capable of protecting him. Keira quickly discarded the idea for the same reason she had given her cousin when he had suggested sending for the Camerons. Sir Liam might not want that, might be reluctant to pull his family into whatever trouble he had gotten himself. She could sympathize for she too hesitated to involve her family in her own troubles.
Excerpted from Highland Champion by Hannah Howell. Copyright © 2005 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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