Excerpt from The Stone Maiden
Scotland, The Highlands, 1170
Sebastien scanned the shadows in the old church out of habit, though he knew no danger existed here. He was simply waiting, silent yet wary, as was his duty as a king's guard, while the visiting Highland girl explored the abbey. Pray saints she would hurry. He had other things to do than stand here. Yet at the same time, he sensed she needed a little peace here, and he would allow her that.
The place seemed to glow, he thought, glancing around its familiar interior. Perhaps its luminosity came from the afternoon light—or perhaps the girl created it, he had the sudden thought, like a flame inside a lantern.
She was indeed a flame, for earlier in audience with the king, she had stirred him to temper when he preferred cool control. In scarcely an hour's time, she had ignited in him fascination, lust, envy, anger, and frustration. Now she roused something else in him—a protective urge. Odd, he thought.
She had wandered off and disappeared among the huge columns in the dim old church for a long while, so he crossed the nave out of curiosity. Rounding past one of the wide columns, he stopped in astonishment.
Alainna MacLaren had stepped up from the floor to perch on the narrow edge of a column base, toes balanced, chest and torso pressed against the pillar, one arm hugging the column. The other hand stretched toward the groove of a carved chevron as if she sought a hold.
"Do you mean to climb all the way up, my lady?" he asked.
She gasped, her foot caught in the train of her gown, and she tilted, arms flailing. He lunged forward so that she tipped neatly into the cradle of his arms.
"Ach," she said breathlessly, looping an arm around his neck. She was long-limbed but not heavy, her body firm through layered fabrics. She was strong, too, for she squirmed so that he nearly dropped her.
"Let me go, sirrah!" she insisted.
"First tell me what happened. Did you turn your ankle? Were you startled by a mouse?" He turned, holding her, looking around. "Shall I vanquish the little beast for you?"
"Spare me your chivalry and your poor jest. You only surprised me, and I fell. Set me down!"
"So be it." He let her go and she stood.
"Your Gaelic is good for a Norman knight," she said, for they were both speaking quietly and quickly in that tongue. "It is surprising."
"I have been a guard here in King William's court for long enough that I took time to learn the language. That way," he said, "I know what is going on around me. It is to my advantage."
"I suppose I should be careful what I say then," she said, brushing at her skirts. She glanced up at the column.
"At least be careful what you do. Why were you trying to climb that column like a squirrel in a tree?"
She did not seem amused. A blush spread beneath her translucent skin, her sapphire eyes darkened, her brows lowered. Sebastien felt as if he watched a gathering storm.
He rather liked storms. "If you want to continue," he drawled, "I could boost you up on my shoulders."
She opened her mouth to reply, then laughed reluctantly. The sound echoed like bells. He chuckled, though it felt strangely dry and rusty. He did not laugh often, he realized.
"I was trying to see my cousin's mark, up there." She pointed.
He looked up. "Mark?"
"Mason's mark," she said. "A symbol engraved in the stone. When a mason dresses a block or makes a carving, he cuts his mark. They are paid according to the work they sign. That one is my cousin's mark."
The vision in his left eye was not as sharp as it once had been, but he did see a distinct symbol cut into one of the stones above their heads. He nodded.
"I just wanted to see it. Touch it," Alainna said.
Sebastien nodded thoughtfully. Then he picked up the cloth and charcoal she had set down on the floor earlier. Reaching up to the mason's mark presented no challenge when he propped a foot on the plinth and stretched his arm up. He smoothed the cloth over the carving and rubbed the charcoal over it to obtain an impression. Then he stepped down and handed her the cloth.
"A remembrance of your cousin," he said.
Her gaze was wide, sincere. "My thanks, sir knight. You must be very devoted to your own kin to know why this means so much to me."
"I... value family," he said vaguely. He glanced at the cloth and saw that she had made some small sketches on it with the charcoal. "These are good. You are quite an imagier."
"I had some training from my cousin. Let me show you his work." She strolled with him, pointing out acanthus carvings and panels of interlaced vines. "See those flowers there? Malcolm always curled and fluted his leaves like that, to make the edges thin and delicate. These are clearly his work."
He listened, admiring the fine work she showed him, though he glanced more at the girl than the carvings. Her voice was soft and soothing, the sight of her like a balm to his weary spirit. As they neared the arched doors, she turned to him.
"My foster brother is waiting for me outside."
Sebastien felt a wrench within, like dismay. He simply held the door open for her. She glided past, the top of her head just at the level of his shoulder, though she was tall for a woman.
Outside he saw the girl's foster brother, Giric MacGregor, riding toward them, leading a second horse by the reins. Both mounts were the sturdy garrons common to the Highlands, smaller and shaggier than Norman horses.
Sebastien turned. "Farewell, Alainna of Kinlochan. We will not meet again."
She looked startled. "Why so?"
"I plan to leave Scotland soon."
Her cheeks colored pink. "Oh! A thousand blessings on you, then, and may God make smooth the path before you," she said quickly in Gaelic. "May the faeries protect you."
He smiled, familiar with the poetry of Gaelic greetings and farewells. "May you be safe from every harm, and may the angels bless you," he murmured in return.
She whirled and ran toward Giric, who assisted her into the saddle. Taking the reins, she glanced back.
Sebastien raised a hand in salute as they left. Then he took the path leading toward the king's tower. But he could not resist an urge to look back.
Alainna swiveled to look back at him just as he glanced toward her. Then they both turned away. He headed down the sloped path, surrounded by trees and birdsong, and found himself listening for distant hoofbeats, as if the sound was a thread linking him to her for a while longer.
He felt as if something remarkable had happened, but he could not define it. The Highland girl had entered his day like sunlight falling over shadows. In her absence, the world seemed somehow duller, colder.
Then he remembered why she had come to the king's court—to request that the king find her a husband, a capable warrior and protector for her small clan—but the hapless fellow must take her clan's name, for she was the last of her line of chiefs. Sebastien huffed; what man would sacrifice his name?
But a twinge of jealousy rippled through him at the thought of her marrying a man, whether Celtic or Norman, who might agree to her conditions. Frowning, not sure why he should care at all, he walked on.