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Conn gasped in a breath. The boy's jerkin had fallen open. The linen shirt clung to the hills and valleys of the heaving chest between Conn's thighs like a second skin. He cursed softly, staring at breasts that were small but well-shaped and undeniably feminine. The volatile child subdued beneath him was a girl, not a lad. The Fiannic oath promising gentleness to all women echoed through his mind, eliciting both anger and shame.
His body relaxed as he felt the girl's muscles yield. Her face dissolved in a paroxysm of grief, and the tears flowed, tracing a grimy path between her eyes and ears. Conn gently wiped her cheek with the back of his hand, wondering how he could have been so blind as to mistake her for a boy. He moved off her and gathered her up in his arms. Her body slumped as he stroked her short-cropped hair.
Her voice was muffled into his shoulder as she spoke three hoarse words. "Where is he?"
Conn spoke softly even as his hands tightened their grip. "If you speak of the one who was with you, he's dead."
As Conn gazed toward the brightening horizon, he hoped his words were true. He doubted any mortal could have survived such a wound. He briefly considered returning to the hills surrounding the cave to search for the lad's body, but he did not want to drag the girl along with him, nor did he dare leave her alone. She had stiffened at his words and he instinctively checked to make sure the dagger was still lying in the mud a few feet away.
"Please let me go," she said, lifting her head from his shoulder but avoiding his gaze.
"Why?" Conn asked. "So you can ambush me up the trail a few leagues from here?" He shook his head. "No, thankyou. I've seen you wield sharp objects and I've no desire to see it again."
"I want to bury him. I never had the chance to bury my father and mother." A single tear slid down her cheek but her words were tinged with icy calm.
He jerked her around to face him but she still refused to meet his eyes. "Just who by the blood of the gods were your mother and father? Who was evil enough to spawn your murdering soul?" He baited her, seeking truth between the cracks he sensed in her tenuous reserve. When his question met only silence, he asked, "How old are you? And who was this man?"
A tremor ran through her. "I am a thousand years old. What concern is it of yours?"
Conn's gaze traced the insolent curve of a cheek pure enough to belong to a druid priestess and almost believed her. His hand tightened on her wrist, pressing into the tender flesh. The skin around her lips blanched but she did not flinch. His eyes narrowed.
His grip changed subtly. His hand slid up her arm and over the wet, cracked leather of the jerkin. His palm cradled the damp skin that fluttered over the pounding pulse in her throat. His fingertips grazed the tiny hairs at the back of her neck and she could not hide her shiver.
"Are you a woman or a child?" he asked in a voice that was not unkind.
Stony silence met his question.
His finger traced the curve of her cheek. "Your flesh is curiously unlined for one so ancient."
She turned her face away from him and stared into the forest. Conn cursed as his patience evaporated in a wave of anger and exasperation. His hands caught in her worn jerkin. He snatched her up like a puppet, the heat of his anger in the face of her pale indifference spreading uninvited to his loins.
"'Tis clear you're old enough to murder my men and steal their clothes. If neither your face nor your lips will tell me your age, perhaps I shall examine what lies beneath Conor Ó Murchada's jerkin for my answers."
She hung unmoving in his grasp, her eyes still averted. Her helplessness disarmed him. He lowered her. He touched his fingers to the bandage beneath her jerkin; they reappeared stained with pale pink water.
"You're bleeding again. Are you trying to kill yourself?"
She raised arrogant eyes to meet the dark blue of his. "No, Conn. I'm trying to kill you." A smile twisted her lips.
Conn stared, mesmerized by the glittering, emerald eyes--the bitter, wounded eyes of a woman set deep in the face of a child. The nagging bell of familiarity tolled again. His gaze never leaving hers, he went to the horse and took a length of rope from the knapsack. She offered him no resistance as he bound her hands.
"You know who I am," he said. "When you decide to tell me who you are, I will unbind you. In the meantime, I would like you to think carefully about what's going to happen to you when we reach my fortress."
The girl's face was impassive. Her chin tilted in cold defiance as she stared mutely into his glittering blue eyes.
"You will go on trial for the murders of five men--Conor ó Murchada, Ryan ó Brosnahan, Brian MacRuairc, Kyle MacRuairc, who had the misfortune of belonging to the same clan, and Kevin ó hArtagain. You should be familiar with the names." He gestured to her waist where the leather belts hung, condemning her without a word. "If I can keep the MacRuaircs from cutting out your heart before the trial, the public court will determine your guilt. If they decide you are guilty, I will pass sentence."
He knelt beside her, taking her chin in his unyielding hand. "I shall then let you choose between two just punishments. I will either turn you over to the clans of the men you killed"--his eyes searched her face for any sign of emotion--"or I will have you beheaded." She flinched imperceptibly, the only indication she had heard his words.
Without another word he bound her feet and threw his cloak over her. The sun floated over the horizon as exhaustion forced both of them to sleep. Conn's sleep was light, his mind tuned for any sound.
The afternoon sun had dried his garments when he awoke. Shaking off the grogginess of slumber, he hugged his knees and watched the girl sleep. With her face peaceful in repose, she looked five years younger than any guess of her age Conn might have made. Stubby, dark eyelashes fanned on her freckled cheeks, shielding him from the woman's hatred he would find in her eyes when she awoke. An unexpected twinge of yearning tightened his throat as she yawned softly and snuggled deeper into his cloak. He wished for an instant that he were a different kind of man.
He shook his head in disbelief at the thought of this innocent and the ice-hearted killer in the cavern sharing the same lithe body. An unnatural flush, which did not seem to claim the sun as its precursor, had risen on her face. He reached out a hand and gently touched her cheek. The smooth skin felt hot to his callused fingers. Her eyes fluttered open to meet his, then shut again as if displeased at the sight.
"Water?" she croaked.
"I was fetching you some water when you tried to send me down the creek with my own dagger in my back."
Conn rose. He returned with a canteen full of the sparkling water and squatted beside her. Putting an arm around her shoulders, he lifted her and touched the wet rim of the canteen to her lips. She leaned against him and drank deeply. Conn took a corner of his tunic and gently wiped away the drops of water that escaped her thirsty lips. Her bound hands were clenched into fists between them. She hid her tremble with a cough but not before Conn could see that sleep had robbed her of anger, but not fear. He drank, the cool water soothing his parched throat.
"We must travel. Your wound is festering. It needs to be seen by one of my physicians," he said.
"Wouldn't it be more convenient if I died on the journey there?" the girl said caustically, her eyes glazed.
Conn shook his head. "Too many unanswered questions. If you are so determined to die, I insist you wait until I at least have learned your name." He pulled a piece of meat from his knapsack. "Here. You need to eat." He unbound her and put the thin strip of meat in her hand.
"I cannot eat this. Only kings and high poets can eat steak." He saw no trace of sarcasm in her face, only confusion.
"Are you not hungry, nameless one?"
She bit reluctantly into the meat. A look of greedy pleasure transformed her face into that of a child. Conn hid a smile as she stuffed the meat into her mouth with ravenous hands.
He stood and began to pace, hands locked behind his back. "As I see it, if you will tell me who this man was, it might not be necessary to tell everyone at the fortress exactly who you are. You said your father was dead. So was this man your brother or your cousin?"
The girl shook her head without slowing her eating.
Conn ignored her and continued. "You are very young. It seems to me that this man of yours ensured that all of the blood in this grim affair would be on your hands, not his."
Her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as she downed the last bite with an audible swallow.
"This man used you and made a fool of you, teaching you to fight some twisted battle that should have been his."
The girl reached to her waist for a sword that was not there. "He was never like that. He loved me!"
Her eyes fell as she realized her error. She rubbed a grubby hand through her auburn hair until it stood up in nervous spikes.
Conn turned on his heel. "Was he your lover, then?"
She stared at him for a long moment. "He was."
Conn paced away from her. "He must have been a fine lover, indeed. Fine enough to commit murder for."
She lifted her chin. "The finest. Finer than any of the Fianna ever dreamed of being."
Conn raised an eyebrow. "And what prompted you and your charming lover to murder my men?"
"Not murder. Justice."
The ghost of a smile hovered around Conn's lips. He crossed the clearing in two strides and knelt in front of her. She shrank back but refused to lower her gaze.
"You're lying," he said. "A man wants a woman in his bed, not a dirty little cave urchin. If he was your lover, he'd been living in a cave far too long. It addled his wits."
She crossed her arms. "Believe what you like. You will anyway. You always did."
Conn rubbed the back of his neck to keep from smacking her. He exhaled a slow breath. "Dearest child," he said, pronouncing each word with infinite patience, "I am not asking for the truth. I am commanding it."
She blinked wide eyes. "Now, that puts a new slant on things, doesn't it?" Conn stood as she climbed unsteadily to her feet. She swept off an imaginary hat and bowed until her forehead touched her knees. "Grant me a thousand pardons, Conn. I must confess. The man was . . ."--a teasing sigh; a sly glance from beneath downswept lashes--". . . my lover."
"Nonsense. You've probably never kissed a man with anything but the tip of your sword. He had to have been a cousin or a broth--"
Before Conn could finish, she pressed her lips to his in a kiss as childish as it was affecting. His hands moved to her waist to push her away but stayed of their own volition, resting lightly against the linen shirt. He could have counted every rib without opening his eyes.
He took a step backward. "Good," he said briskly. "Then you shall be well prepared for the attentions of the MacRuairc clan should they decide not to end your life. Since you choose to flaunt your murderous liaison with this man, 'tis fitting you should spend the rest of your life tied to a farmer's bedstead at the mercy of his sons and all their kinsfolk."
Her face paled. Conn stared coldly into her stricken eyes, ignoring a pang of guilt. "You offer much to protect this man, whatever he was to you, but I fear my tastes don't run to lying murderesses who fancy it justice to leave behind a trail of grieving widows and orphans."
She plopped to the ground. Her fingers tore up a hunk of moss. Her voice was hoarse. "There is no justice for orphans in this world. The sooner they learn that, the better off they will be."
Conn dropped his cloak around her shoulders. "And for those who made them orphans?"
She gave him a half smile that would have been devastating if not overshadowed by the blind hatred in her sparkling eyes. "You tell me, sire."
Conn crossed the clearing and threw the knapsack over Silent Thunder's back. He tightened the straps with a jerk. "If I give you my oath not to question you further about the man, will you give me a name to call you?"
The whisper came from right behind him. He was halfway turned when the rock came down on the back of his head with a dull thud. Before he hit the ground, the girl had stripped him of his sheath and dagger and was gone.