Excerpt from The Raven's Moon
In the darkness, despite the pain in his head, Rowan Scott lashed out to grab the hand of his captor. "Who are you?" he asked. "Where am I?"
The young woman did not answer, though her hand tensed and she pulled against his grip. He lifted his head and tried to move, and though the pain decided him against it, he kept a taut grip on the girl's slender wrist.
He peered up at her face, blurred and shadowed, above his. A candle flame sliced like a golden blade through the darkness. The brightness hurt his eyes. He was aware of his aching skull—and the warm, comfortable cushion beneath his head. The girl's lap.
"Rowan Scott." Her whisper lured him back from the fog that sucked at him. Now there were two of her—now one—a pale face and a sweep of dark hair like braided silk. "Rowan Scott," she repeated. "How do you feel?"
He lifted a hand to his head. "Who are you?" he asked again.
"Mairi." She said it with a long, nasal "ah", Mah-re. The sound was breathy, velvety. Gaelic. Intrigued, he frowned up at her. A Highland woman, here in the Borders? He was dreaming, for an ethereal beauty gazed down at him, serene, with dark hair, her eyes tranquil gray. A restful sight.
Yet this was the same lass who had slammed the ball of a pistol butt against his head with the force of a cannon shot earlier this evening.
He grimaced and touched his head. Cool fingers pushed his away. "You'll make the wound bleed," she said.
He accepted that, glancing around the room. Dark. Stone walls, window slit, single torch on the wall. No furniture. Prison again?
"What is this place?" he asked.
"You're safe here until you're strong enough to leave," she replied.
Safe? He wanted to laugh. Slowly he sat, then leaned against the cold stone wall. He felt swamped in dizziness. Blood pounded in his head and his stomach lurched and he wanted to puke. The lass waited—divided into two hazy images, blended again.
"Stay still," she said.
"You stay still," he said, touching his aching, bandaged brow. "I should never have taken off my helmet with you around," he muttered.
"Leave it be, Rowan Scott." Her voice was calm, magical and warm.
"How do you know my name?"
"The paper in your—"
"You took the papers?" His leather jack was gone, his doublet as well, he now realized. The shirt he wore was too small and not his. He still had his damp breeches, but his boots were gone too. "What the devil! Where did you find the paper?"
"In your boot."
"Ah." Good, he thought. The thieving wench had not found the other, more important, document that he carried. "Where is my gear?"
"Wet, but drying now."
"My horse?" Valentine was a valuable animal and a worthy prize for any Border reiver. He might never see his horse again. The thought infuriated him.
"Stabled and fed," she replied. "You will have him back."
He did not trust that. "My weapons?"
She smiled a little. "Would I leave weapons in your reach? Your dirk and sword, pistol and lance are safely put away."
"Pouch? And coin?"
"Safe as well."
And in your pocket, he thought. He tried to absorb what had happened.
The girl and a companion—he remembered two riders in the rain—had attacked him and must have taken him for ransom, a common money-making tactic along the Border. He was no stranger to capture and imprisonment, ransom either. He and his Scott kin had taken their share of prisoners, collecting coin or cattle in return for a bit of Blackdrummond hospitality.
"Which riding family are you?" he asked her. He was still puzzled by the Gaelic accent.
"My cousins are Kerrs." Her tone had a chill in it now.
"Godamercy," he muttered. The Kerrs had feuded with his kin for years. "So I am a hostage," he said. "I assume you mean to ransom me."
"Ransom?" She frowned. "No."
Scowling, Rowan tried to think. "What dungeon is this?"
"An old tower ruin," she said.
"Ah," he said. "Lincraig Castle." He knew the place now, glancing around. Lincraig belonged to his grandfather. Rowan had not been inside the place for years. Why would Kerrs capture and confine him on Scott property? If the girl had found the letter in his boot—if she could read it—she knew he was Blackdrummond himself.
He considered what it would take to subdue her and walk out. But the very thought exhausted him. He tilted his head against the stone wall.
"Be careful. Your head is sore hurt," she said.
He tilted one brow and looked at her. "Aye, thanks to a wee lass with a great heavy pistol. Why did you hit me?"
"You were attacking my friend."
"Was I?" He pressed the bandage and winced.
"Leave it be."
She stood. She was not tall, but long-legged and slender in male clothing too large for her. The long, thick braid fell over her shoulder, sheened dark in the candlelight.
Her face was sweet, her eyes wide and honest. She befuddled him. He could not reconcile that delicate face with her vicious attack and the theft of his gear and horse.
"What riding family would send a wee lass to do their work?" he asked.
"No one sent me."
"You pounced on me, clobbered my head and took everything but my breeks. Why?"
"I will be back later with food and drink," she said, and moved toward the door.
Rowan shot out a hand to grab at her ankle, yanking, despite the pain when he moved. She fell hard to her hands and knees, and he pulled her toward him.
"Let go," she gasped. He did not.
"Tell me why you rode me down," he growled, keeping hold of her ankle in its leather boot. He would not let on that holding her leg took all his strength.
She smacked at him, twisted, but he held firm.
"Who are you? Answer me!"
"My Border kinsmen will hang you if you harm me!"
"Border lass! Hardly. Why would a Highland lass ride a Lowland road in the night, attacking a traveler for his coin and his horse?"
She stopped and stared. A strand of hair slipped across her eyes. She blew at it irritably. "Highlander?" she asked innocently.
"You, my lass, are a Highlander," he said, pulling her toward him. "And a highway thief. Tell me what you are about here."
She twisted, but he tightened his grip. She kicked, he blocked.
"Tell me!" he roared. He thought his skull would split.
She glared at him, breathing hard. "I am no thief."
"You broke my head, but I could break your ankle like a twig unless I have the truth from you now. Who are you?"
"My cousins are Kerrs," she gasped. "My friends are Armstrongs. And you are a dead man for this deed."
"I ought to be dead for the head crack you gave me." He tugged on her leg. "Kerrs or Armstrongs, your first word was a Gaelic one. What is your game here the Kerrs?"
She grunted and turned away, but he dragged her toward him.
"Let go," she said. "It hurts."
"Tell me the truth," he demanded.
When she nodded, he released her, and she scrambled away from him to sit against the wall, rubbing her ankle, sending him little acid glances.
"I should have tied your hands and feet," she muttered.
"No doubt. Talk." He leaned against the wall. His head spun and he thought again he might vomit or black out. He sucked in cool air until the feeling passed.
"Well?" he asked again. "Why did you ride out after me in the dark as I took the highway tonight?"
"I wanted something from you," she said.
"And now you have twenty pounds Scots silver, a sword with an Irish hilt, two wheel-lock pistols, a lance, a latchbow, and a good steel bonnet. And a Galloway horse finer than any I will ever see again."
"You will have them all back."
"I had better," he grunted.
"I do not want your silver or your gear. I wanted—to know who you were." She looked away. The dark braid whipped over her shoulder. "I just needed to know."
"You have the writ, so now you know. Rowan Scott of Blackdrummond, the Border warden's new deputy. Now tell me. Who ransoms me?" He narrowed his eyes. "Are you kin to Simon Kerr?" he asked then. "His daughter? His leman?"
She lifted her chin in icy silence. He waited.
"Who is your family, Mairi o' the Highlands?"
"Why did the king's council send you here?" she countered.
"That is not yours to know."
"What orders did the council give you?"
"You have some quarrel with me," he said. "And now I have one with you."
"We two have more quarrel than you can guess," she said tightly.
He wondered how long he could continue this polite conversation before he had to lean over and be sick.
She stood and went to the door, yanking it open and slamming it behind her. Rowan heard the door bar dropping into place.
He sighed and rested his head against the wall.
Next the door wrenched open, and a blanket and a wrapped bundle were tossed in. A few oatcakes rolled out. A leather flask hit the floor too. Rowan stopped it deftly with his foot.
"My thanks," he drawled as the door slammed again.
Looking about, he suddenly smiled to himself.
Lincraig Castle was no confinement for a Blackdrummond Scott. He knew the crannies and passages within the old ruin. As soon as his head ached less, he would find a quick way out and be far from this place by morning.
Then a new thought occurred. The girl had asked about his orders from the crown.
What would a Highland lass know about the lost Spanish gold he had been sent here to recover?