Authors: Teresa Reasor
Coira shivered as delightful sensations trickled down her spine. She wanted to lose herself in the feelings he evoked, but she couldn’t completely shut off the anxiety that came with not knowing where she had been or how long she had been gone. “You did not tell me how long I was away.”
“Only a short time. Did you fall asleep?”
“I dinna ken.”
Braden pulled back once again to look into her face. “You left with your basket to gather herbs.”
They moved apart to look about the yard. “I have left it behind, but I dinna remember where.” Fear lanced through her again then settled like a stone in her belly.
Braden laced his fingers through hers and drew her back the way she had come. “We will look about for it. You could not have gone far.”
The trail sloped down, the heavy growth of trees shielding the henge from view for a time. The foliage grew sparser and opened into a clearing.
Loch Maree provided a purplish-blue backdrop to the circle of twenty stones topped by lintels that stretched nearly the width of the inlet. A knoll of ground provided a natural dam holding back the water.
Braden led her beneath the crossbar spanning a narrow path between two of the stones. Atop the limestone altar in the center of the site sat her basket, the long stems of several plants sticking over the sides. The edge of her tartan shawl, bunched beside it, fluttered in the breeze. Braden paused in the shade of one of the slabs, a sudden wary tension in his stance.
Warm moist air looped around them. A prickling sensation fluttered over Coira’s skin as though a lightning strike had just dispersed. The smell of smoke lingered on the breeze. Braden’s grasp tightened upon her hand, holding her at his side.
More curious than alarmed, she ran a soothing hand down his arm. “Be at ease. There is nothing to fear in this place.”
She closed her eyes and embraced the power that lingered on the air like mist. Pulling away from Braden’s grasp, she walked clockwise along the edge of the circle. A low hum traveled through the bottoms of her feet to the top of her head, the vibration intensifying as she neared one particular stone. The Ogham designs carved into the pillar writhed black against the reddish light the setting sun painted upon the slab’s surface.
The air grew still and weighted with moisture. She tasted it, like dew, on her tongue. Her skin grew damp. The sound of the wind, the movement of the trees, her own breathing, ceased. Her ears felt full, as if she had climbed a tall peak and needed to swallow to clear them. What was about here?
“Coira—” Braden spoke behind her, his tone taut with wariness.
An area, head high, on the block wavered like something live wrestled within it. A bulge appeared pulsing, panting, as if the stone were giving birth. A shape thrust forward. Coira staggered back in surprise and fear, a startled cry torn from her.
Shoulders bowed, the figure stretched its neck back as though attempting to relieve the cramped pain of release. The head turned. A strange oval structure covering the top third of the face, a round disk covered the mouth with a black piece as thick as an eel attached to it. For a moment, the form retained the gray color of the limestone in which it was imbedded, and then the stone slid away like liquid leaving the flesh exposed. The features were feminine, her head, neck, and shoulders encased in something gray-black as a seal’s pelt. With a wiggle, and a sound like the release of suction, a single arm and hand flopped free reaching toward her.
The pale blue eyes that gazed at her from behind the strange mask reflected her same horror and fear. The wide cheekbones, the dark slash of her brows, the narrow bridge of her nose, mirrored hers in exact detail, and for a moment Coira thought she gazed at her own image.
With a twisting movement, the woman tried to break free of the stone, her chest heaving in and out as she attempted to breathe. Coira’s eyes stung with tears of pity. She could not stand aside and watch her die. She had to pull her free. Coira reached up to grasp the hand extended toward her.
“Nay!” Braden bellowed.
A current passed through Coira’s fingers, and a force, invisible but strong, looped around her wrist like a rope and pulled. Fear lanced through her, bone deep. She braced her feet and leaned back, fighting against the power that sucked her forward against her will. As she looked up, the hand above her reached out like a black claw to grab her.
Quinn shined the watertight torch on the face of his wrist compass. The sediment in the water had grown thicker since his last dive. The red-brown debris peppered his dry suit and clung to his mask. It was like swimming inside an angry, dark thundercloud. He wiped the sediment away with the back of his glove.
Though a sense of urgency goaded him to hurry, he forced himself to keep his kicks slow and even. It would do no good to expend his air before he’d had a chance to search the immediate area. The light from his torch penetrated the silt only a few feet before it bounced back to him.
Would he be able to find the girl’s body? Dredging would be futile. Loch Maree was too deep. If he couldn’t recover her, she would be lost in the loch until she surfaced downstream in a few days or weeks. A pity.
He came upon the side of the cofferdam and allowed the momentum of his kicks to carry him over the lip of the drop-off. The deeper he swam, the more the water cleared and grew darker. The current just beneath the surface carried the sludge kicked up by the pumps downstream and away from the stones.
His light picked up the white PVC piping that lay suspended over the bottom. The blurred image, separated by so much water, looked like broken bones scattered on the ground. The thought sent a tremor through Quinn. He shouldn’t have listened to Henry describe the woman over the five minutes it had taken him to call his brother and get suited up. She was too young to die like this.
Warmth permeated his dry suit and a current looped around him. Surprised by the sudden change in temperature and the resistance, Quinn swam against the water’s pull. Perhaps the pumps above had forced surface water down and caused a strange undertow. The girl’s body could be caught in it. He would explore the current more fully once he had checked out the site. He popped through into calmer water surrounding the underwater dig.
The long, dark slabs surrounded by the piped grid appeared like shadows nestled in the mud. Quinn played his light over the end of one and trailed it along its length. Light reflected off the tempered glass of a mask. He’d found her. She appeared to be kneeling atop the stone, so still she looked like part of it. Had she somehow tethered herself to the stone? He’d known divers to do that to save their families the heartache and wait of searching for them. His parents had done so.
The memory had his stomach rolling and his chest tightened.
Don’t think about it.
He closed his eyes until the sensation eased. When he opened them again, the diver remained as still as death before him.
He swam forward.
Air exploded from Coira’s lungs, and the world careened. She landed on her back with Braden’s large form pinning her to the ground. His eyes looked dark against the paleness of his skin. With an oath, he turned to look over his shoulder.
The steady vibration of power interrupted, the woman’s head and shoulders slowly receded as the slab swallowed her. For a moment, her flailing hand appeared suspended, bobbing as if caught upon a liquid current deep within, before it too sank back into the rock. A final watery ripple expanded from the center of the stone to its edge.
With a loud pop, Coira’s ears cleared, and she became aware of Braden’s stormy countenance above her.
“Do you have no fear, woman? You were going to touch her. How could you do such a thing, Coira?”
“She could not breathe, Braden. I only sought to free her.”
“And what if she dragged you in with her? What if she drowned you in the stone?”
Shudders of reaction racked her. Her arms and legs felt heavy and weak. Her clothing, clammy and damp, clung to her skin, and moist curls brushed her face. She drew a deep breath and still tasted the odd moistness of the air. Tears blurred her vision and she burrowed her face into Braden’s shoulder and clung to him, needing his strength more than she had ever needed it before.
“’Twas me, Braden. Did you not see it?”
“Nay.” His denial bordered on a shout, arms tightening around her to the point of pain. His large body trembled as violently as hers. He struggled to his feet, his movements sluggish, as if he too felt drained. Half dragging, half lifting her, he urged her to a standing position and looped his arm about her waist to hold her up. He scooped the basket and shawl from the altar, and, stumbling forward, guided her through the stones and back up the path.
They reached the summit of the hill before he stopped. His chest heaving like bellows, Braden gasped between breaths, “You will never return there again, Coira. Never. I forbid it. Do you hear me?”
“Aye.” She sank down on the ground and bent her knees to rest her head upon them, lightheaded from the climb. She shivered, her damp clothing cooled by the evening air.
Braden sat beside her and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. She pulled the tartan against her body and burrowed beneath its warmth.
He clenched his hands into fists, his mouth thin, his brows drawn into a scowl, but he did not voice his thoughts.
She looked out on the loch as the last rays of light touched the water, turning it to liquid gold. As she remembered the thickness of the air she had breathed, felt the cloying dampness that still clung to her skin, a renewed surge of fear sent icy tendrils down her spine. She turned her face against her knees and huddled tighter within the meager warmth of the shawl.
Braden pushed against her shoulder until she allowed him to press her down on the ground, sharing the heat of his body. For several moments, she continued to shiver, and clenched her teeth against their urge to chatter. She had survived, because her husband had intervened, but what would have happened had he not been there to protect her? What happened before he had accompanied her to the circle? Why could she not remember?
She nestled against him and bent her knee over his thigh, drawing him within the cradle of her body. She rolled onto her back pulling him with her, driven to feel the weight and strength of him on top of her.
Bracing an arm on the ground, he looked down at her. His expression grave, he smoothed back the tendrils of hair that clung to her forehead. “I thought I had lost you,” he said.
His deep voice fell to raspy whisper that caught at her heart and brought a lump to her throat. They had already endured so much separation, so much heartache. Had she been snatched into the stone, they could have lost each other forever.
“Promise me you wilna go there again, Coira.”
Tears pricked her eyes. Even after what they had experienced, she could not imagine refraining from worshipping within the circle. “The stones are a part of me, Braden. I canna promise not to go there.” Her hand cupped his beard-roughened cheek as her gaze probed his.
His frown grew harsh, his mouth a thin hard line. “You could have died, Coira. Do you not know that? Can you not feel it in your heart?”
“I know ‘tis the truth you speak. But ‘tis my church, Braden. ‘Tis where I must go to cure the sick and ease their suffering. What power I have ties me to the stones, and them to me. You can ask me to forsake them for myself, but you canna ask me to forsake them for the others.”
He swore again and dropped his head on his forearm. His weight pushed down on her and his muscles trembled with tension. She felt the rage and frustration in the clenching of his stomach muscles, in the tight banded muscles of his thighs pressed against hers. For all the violent rage he exuded, she clung to him, sensing a shift in her world that frightened her. When he raised his head, lines of strain dug deep around his eyes and mouth. His green gaze held resignation and a hint of sadness.
“I would fight the very devil for you, Coira, but I canna fight this calling you have. ‘Twould change the lass you are if I did. But I fear for you, so much I canna breathe.”
Her stomach grew hollow with guilt and regret. A jolt of alarm left her heart racing. “What would you have me do, Braden?”
He shook his head. “There is nothing to be done. If I demand you stay away, ‘twill come between us, if I dinna do so, it may do so as well,” he said, his voice soft. “What would you have
She did not have an answer any more than he did. “Love me,” she said, her voice hoarse with emotion.
His features softened. “I do, lass.” He bent his head to brush her lips with his. “More than my life.”
Her world had already tilted out of control once this day and she felt it doing so again. She ran her hands down his back to cup his buttocks. Desperation made her voice shake. “Come inside me, Braden, so we may be as close as we can be.” Her hands trembled as she fumbled to unlace his braes and push up the long tail of his shirt. She ran her palms up the long length of his back.
His smile appeared only a little forced. “That I can do,” he said. He dragged the fabric of her surcoat and kirtle aside, bunching it between them until they lay stomach to stomach. His cock laid stiff and thick against the inside of her leg and she breathed a sigh of relief for the evidence of his desire.
His eyes appeared moss green, smoky with emotion. As he lowered his mouth to hers, she raked the fingers of one hand through the tangled mass of curly black hair that fell around his face. The same desperation that coursed through her was mirrored in the way he kissed her, caressed her. The way he thrust himself inside her before she was completely ready for him. The sting of it faded, and the familiar pleasure spiraled and built, driven by the thrashing intensity of their coupling. But fear laced their movements as Braden ground his hips against her and she pushed back in more than a bid for sexual release. A desire to share each other’s skins, to hold onto the oneness they had discovered together, pulsed between them.