Authors: Laura Parker
He reined in a second time and prepared to pass through the throng once more, but the approaching thunder of another horse sent the men running toward the forest, their thirst for blood diminished by the sight of another rider.
Satisfied to see Robin galloping toward him, Revelin turned to his pet. “Ualter, release the man.”
The command was instantly obeyed. The dog backed off the herder’s chest but bared his teeth and growled as the man sat up, and Revelin enjoyed the sight of the terrified man scampering on hands and knees after the others.
“What sport is this?” Robin cried as he slowed his mount beside Revelin.
“The work of cowards.”
“Shall we give chase?” Robin suggested gamely.
Revelin slowly shook his head as he sheathed his sword,
but his gaze did not move from the line of trees until the last man disappeared into the forest. When he finally looked around, the two women had struggled to their feet. Without a moment’s hesitation he slipped from the saddle and tossed the reins to Robin. “Bide here a moment,” he said quietly. “They’ve been frightened enough.”
His tread was deliberate and slow as he approached the women. He could see bloody patches of skin exposed by their torn garments. At the sound of his approach, the younger of the two looked up, startled, and he paused.
A wild tangle of black hair obscured the details of her features, and what little was visible was bloody and bruised. His gaze flickered over her shapeless tunic, took in her bare feet, and then moved back to her face. This time she raised a hand to her face, as if to ward off a blow.
“Rest easy, girl, there’s nothing to fear. The men have run away,” he said in deep, soothing tones as he moved closer. “They won’t come back. You’ve my promise on it. Do you understand?”
All at once he realized the foolishness of the question. Of course the women did not understand him. He had spoken in English.
Reluctant to be overheard, he glanced back to where Robin waited. His voice was low as he said in Gaelic, “No further harm will come to you, I swear it.” The older woman raised her head and leveled a look at him that made his insides jump.
Una gazed a moment in silence at the handsome young nobleman before her. He had addressed them in English first. There was danger in that. And yet he spoke the Leinster dialect. “Ye best be speaking truly, my lord. By yer battle cry ye’re a Leinsterman and I’ve nae liking for the sort, for all I judge ye a nobleman.”
Revelin smiled at the beggarly woman’s haughtiness. Her head was high, but the muddy hand gripping the younger woman’s shoulder oozed blood from a cut. She swayed slightly, as if about to faint, and he realized that the women leaned against
each other to keep their balance. Sympathy for their plight made him move a step closer despite the fierce face challenging him. “Could I be worse than the others?” he asked with a nod toward the forest.
“Ye could be less and still do harm,” Una answered unhesitatingly, but she put out a hand to grip his arm tightly. She closed her eyes momentarily against the needle-sharp pain that suddenly shot through her chest. There was no time to give in to the pain, no time to do anything but help Meghan escape before the herdsmen regained their courage and returned. “’Tis the lass. She tried to stop them. I fear she’s most hurt.”
“Let me have a look at her,” Revelin answered. As his hand gently closed over her slim shoulder, he felt a shudder pass through the girl. “There’s nothing to fear, lass. I want only to help you.”
Meghan’s head pounded with blinding fury. The terror of the last minutes was with her still, overriding the realization that she was safe. Only a moment before, hard hands had been about to cast her into flames. This touch was more gentle, yet it prodded her to action. Instead of turning toward him as the pressure of his hand demanded, she jerked free and took a few halting steps before she stumbled and sprawled in the rain-slick grass. The impact left her breathless. Incredibly, the warm, wet edge of a rough tongue reached out and bathed her face before she could even draw a breath.
Ualter sniffed the girl delicately and then licked the wound on the back of her hand. Finally he thrust his muzzle under her palm.
“Ualter!” A few quick strides brought Revelin to the fallen girl’s side and he aimed a booted kick at his dog. “Let her be, you mangy cur!”
He knelt and lifted her, turning her over so that her head came to rest against his chest. The fleeting thought of how light she was disappeared as he saw the purple bruise on her right temple where a stone had struck. Had its blow been harder to the fragile spot, he knew, she would have been killed. Restraining a fresh spurt of anger in English curses, he gently touched the trickle of blood at the corner of her lips. Her face was turned from him and for a moment he wondered if the fall had broken her neck. His fingers splayed over the slender column of her throat to the place where her pulse throbbed rapidly.
“Is she dead?” Robin called from his saddle.
“No,” he shouted back, not looking up.
Meghan stirred, trying not to moan as she breathed. “Please! Please, don’t hurt us any more.”
Encouraged by the sound of her voice, Revelin answered, “Hurt you? You’ve nothing to fear from me, lass.” He caught her chin. “Open your eyes and you’ll see nothing to harm you,” he said gently.
Meghan shook her head, straining against the sensation of comfort in the man’s voice. There was no help; why would her dreams taunt her now?
“Look at me, darlin’,” Revelin coaxed in yet a softer tone. “I may not be the man of your dreams, lass, but I’ve never made a lady swoon yet.”
No other words could have made Meghan open her eyes, but the mention of her dreams made them fly wide.
face loomed above her. His bright hair! The rain had darkened it, though, to bronze rings that clung to his brow. They were
eyes—the deep green irises ringed by violet now as full of surprise as her own.
The moment she looked up at him Revelin felt a jolt of familiarity. Sea-blue eyes caught and held him a moment in their whirlpool of emotion, then his gaze moved to the hand covering her left cheek. Frowning, he pried loose the fingers she had clamped over her cheek, though her nails curled into her flesh in clawing desperation. The gesture touched him deeply. Was she so afraid of a man’s regard? And then he saw it. A perfectly shaped blood-red rose birthmark.
“You!” he whispered, jolted back into English by his surprise. “You are real.”
With the lightest of touches his thumb caressed the fine velvety plush of her cheek and then drifted across the distinct floral mark that was no trick of mud or bruise. He had not imagined it. He had not dreamed her.
“So you know her? Trust you to make the most of your days in the wilds.”
Revelin raised his head to find that Robin had dismounted and come to stand over him. His mouth tightened in annoyance. There was little of this he was ready to explain to Robin, least of all why he knew the girl.
“’Twas mean spirited to keep your companions waiting while you exercised your tender charms upon a country wench.” Robin bent over Revelin’s shoulder with a mischievous grin. “Let’s have a look at your Hibernian sweetheart.” He cupped the girl’s face. “She’s a bit muddy, isn’t she, but—God’s blood!” His full horror echoed in his words as Robin jerked his hand away and took a backward step.
Meghan turned her face into the coat sleeve of the man who held her. She did not need to understand English to know that her mark had once again frightened a stranger.
Revelin’s arm tightened protectively as he felt her shrink against him. “What the devil ails you, Neville?”
Robin swallowed hard, his boyish face suddenly pale. “She…she bears Satan’s mark. Put her down, Rev,” he continued as he raised his palm to look at it. “Oh, God, and I’ve touched her, too!”
“Curse you for a fool,” Revelin answered. “What’s a mark, more or less?”
“I’ll thank you to shut up, Robin,” Revelin cut in, amazed by the tide of anger he felt rising within himself and yet sure of its validity. “The girl doesn’t need your superstitious prattling; she needs your help.”
“My help?” Robin voiced faintly. “Really, Butler. This is above all call of duty, even for a gentleman. Leave her, man. Who’s to tell when that rabble may regain their courage and
return? We aren’t even privy to the reason for the attack. Mayhaps the women are witches and…”
Robin faltered, amazed at the look on Revelin’s face. Court gossip whispered that the young Irishman had the devil’s own temper when aroused, but never before had Robin glimpsed the danger that lay like a treacherous current beneath the surface.
Revelin’s voice was taut with anger as he said, “This ‘witch,’ as you would brand her, pulled me from the bottom of a marshy pond where I was entangled and drowning five mornings past. If she be a witch, then I thank God for it.”
“All the same,” Robin murmured, glancing anxiously from Revelin to the girl, whose face was hidden in the crook of his arm. She looked so fragile. Though blood streaked, her slim legs were velvety smooth and seductively curved. Long black hair tumbled about her shoulders and pooled in ebony ringlets in the grass behind her. For a moment, envy stirred in his breast that Revelin held such loveliness.
Then reason reasserted itself. Had he not heard from boyhood of the seductive beauty of Satan’s consorts? Perhaps she had saved Revelin from drowning. Witches could swim. And there was her mark. The mark always meant evil when found on a female.
Revelin watched Robin’s thoughts play across his features. When he saw fear reassert itself he responded quickly. “If the girl frightens you, then see to the old woman,” he directed, then looked away to prevent Robin from answering him.
Reluctantly, Robin turned away. And yet he was glad to move from the girl’s vicinity. He glanced down at his hand once more. He would almost swear that his fingers tingled where they had touched her. When he looked up again he saw the old woman stagger toward him. Passing his tongue nervously over his lips, he paused as she did. “How do you fare, ma’am?” he asked awkwardly.
Una did not respond though she understood the English tongue. To draw even a breath filled her with pain. She fought
it, one fist pressed against her breast, but the pressure increased until she thought her chest would burst. When she opened her mouth to speak, she choked on blood, and the coughing spasm that followed drove the agony through her lungs as she pitched forward.
“Rev!” Robin called out, alarmed by the touch of the old woman, who had fainted into his arms. Yet, he gently laid her on the ground. When his hands came away slick with blood, he shivered. “God strike me, I think she’s dead!”
“Una!” Meghan sat up, her eyes dilated with fear. “Una!” she repeated as she struggled to free herself from her comforter’s embrace. “Let me go, ye great brute!” she cried when the embrace tightened. “Let go!”
Afraid that fighting her would only hurt her more, Revelin reluctantly released her.
Meghan scrambled to her feet, unaware of her own aches as she hurried across the grass to the place where Una lay. Dropping to her knees, she grasped one of her aunt’s hands in both of hers and squeezed the cold, unresponsive fingers. Bending low over the old woman, she whispered, “Una, please, ye cannot die.”
Una’s eyes opened, and her fingers clenched convulsively over the smaller hand. “Meghan,” she whispered, her gaze no longer focused. “Meghan, lass…where…is he?”
Meghan stared in horror at the trickle of blood that emerged from Una’s lips. She dabbed at it with her fingers but succeeded only in smearing it. “Una, ye must nae talk. It makes ye bleed.”
“You’re right. She should lie quietly.”
Meghan looked up, her eyes wild with fright, to find Revelin standing over her. He bent down beside her to offer words of assurance, but the telltale trickle of blood from the woman’s mouth stopped him. He had seen enough wounds to know when a body had suffered fatal injury. Each breath the old woman took brought the foam of blood to her lips. She was dying.
“Do something!” Meghan begged, her expression frantic as
she looked from one man to the other. “Do something!” she screamed again when their silence told her what she did not want to believe, and then her eyes filled with tears as she choked back a sob.
“Meghan,” Una murmured thickly. Her eyes closed for a moment as the last of the color ebbed from her face, then her gray-blue eyes opened and fastened in urgency on her niece. “Ye must…do as I ask. Beneath the turf fire…I buried it. Quickly, lass. Bring it.”
“What?” Meghan questioned, too numb with shock to comprehend the words.
Revelin had understood the old woman and seized the opportunity to distract the girl. “Robin, take the girl and see what you can do about putting out the fire in the hut. The woman says there’s something buried under the hearth. Dig it up and bring it here. Give me your cloak,” he added in afterthought. “She’s blue with cold.”
Robin gave his friend a disbelieving glance. “My cloak? For that wretched creature?” Reluctantly, he swung the costly green velvet from his left shoulder. With a regretful sigh he tossed it onto Revelin’s outstretched arm. “I charge you with its replacement if a single drop of blood is spilled upon it.”
Revelin placed the cloak in Meghan’s hands. “Cover her, lass, and then do as she bids you. ’Tis important to her so you must hurry.”