Excerpt from The Sword Maiden
Lachlann walked the garron pony over the meadow to the stable, while Eva strolled beside him. She glanced up at him, so tall and strong in the moonlight, his dented armor a dull gleam, his black hair sweeping back. He looked—so familiar, and yet so changed. And she had never thought to see him again.
"How is it you came home to Scotland so sudden in the night, after years gone?" she asked. "Are you well? Your face is scarred. You were wounded in that war over in France."
"I am fine, Eva," he murmured.
"Are you a knight now?"
"When did you leave France?"
"A few months ago."
Despite his terseness, she went on. "Are you a knight and a landholder? How did you fare in France? Have you been back in Scotland for long?" She knew she chattered on and could not help it. Stunned by his arrival, she craved the reassurance of their old friendship—if it could ever be reclaimed, after their parting when he had left three years earlier.
"Hold," he said, half laughing. "I have never been as fast at answering your questions as you are at asking them. I am well enough. I came back alive." He shrugged, walking beside her. "A knight, but without land. France was... a harsh place. I returned to Scotland last summer and have been in Perth."
"My cousins came back from France last winter, and told me that the war there is difficult for the French, Scots, and English alike."
"It is war, Eva. Why are you staying here instead of at your home in Innisfarna? I did not expect to find you at my own mother's home, and she gone. And where is..." He paused. "Your husband? You did marry that fellow?"
She halted in the yard. "I... am away from Innisfarna for now. And Colin Campbell is not my husband—yet," she said bluntly. "We are betrothed. He was in France also, for a while."
"Ah," he murmured. "So when is the wedding?"
She hesitated, wishing she did not have to answer that. "When he returns to Argyll. He is away."
"Ah," he said again, just that.
"He is an ambassador to France. Did you see him there? My cousins said you were a guard in the French court."
"I never saw him. I was at court only a short while. After that I rode with a special company. If you are not at Innisfarna, who is? I saw horses in the stable there, when I went past," he said abruptly. "Whose are they?"
"The king installed a garrison there, but I refuse to stay at the castle, one woman among so many men. The soldiers came here just before my father—" Her voice wavered.
"I heard." His voice gentled. "I am sorry, Eva."
She drew a shaky breath. "There is food and water stored in the stable for your horse. Come this way."
He led the horse inside and Eva followed. While he found an empty stall, she went down the aisle and lifted one of the large buckets of water placed there. Lachlann came toward her.
"Let me take that," he said. "It is heavy."
"It is no trouble," she said, but he took the bucket. "I am accustomed to hard work. Since I have been here, I have been fetching water, hoeing the garden, tending livestock, cooking and brewing, weaving baskets and mats, even cutting peat."
He carried the bucket into the stall and emptied it into a low trough for the horse to drink. "I expected to find you the spoiled lady of a wealthy man, not doing the work of a farmer's wife."
She bristled. "Spoiled? You know me better than that!"
"Do I?" he murmured. His gaze met hers, held it. Then he turned away to remove the horse's saddle.
Her cheeks heated again. "I will go back to the house and prepare you something to eat," she said stiffly. "Tomorrow I will find another place to stay."
He set the saddle down. "Why would you do that?"
"We cannot stay here together, and alone!"
"I will not toss you out. It is your house now. My mother left it to you. She thought—I was gone." He began to brush the horse's back. "I will sleep in the smithy, as it was once mine, and no one is using it now."
"Will you take up blacksmithing again? And sword making? We could use both here."
"I do not think I will stay long."
Disappointment plummeted through her. Wanting to know more of his plans, she waited, but he only tended to the horse. She studied his armor, the good leather harnesses for the horse, the carved and padded wooden saddle, the scabbarded sword and other weapons.
"That is fine gear for a Highlander," she said. "My cousins said you did well in France. They said you rode with the Maid, the one who tried to save her country. We heard of her even here," she added. "Such a one!"
"I was one of her guards. There were several of us assigned by the French king to watch her back."
"You knew her!"
"So I did."
"And were you granted rewards for your deeds there?"
He said nothing, bending to lift one of the horse's back feet to examine the hoof. His hands were knowing, his voice quiet as he murmured to the animal. Eva watched, her thoughts tumbling, but one question burned within her.
"Do you have a wife?" Her heart thumped hard.
"I do not." He did not look up.
His terseness frustrated her. "Why do you come back here so sudden and covert, armed like a king's man?"
He straightened. "You were ever a curious girl, with a nimble tongue for talking. I see that has not changed much."
"Not much," she said testily. "And you were ever given to secrets. I see that has not changed either."
"No secrets worth telling. I simply came home."
"I suspect you intend to do more than smithing here." She folded her arms. "I know you."
"Used to," he said. "I have a letter for Simon," he admitted as he settled a blanket over the horse's back. "From the king."
"If you are here to arrest him, you will not find my brother easily."
"I am a messenger. Just that." He glanced up. "Eva, it is late. Tomorrow I will look for your brother. For now, all I want is a bed. And just for tonight, I would like to sleep in the house."
Her heart bounded, but she looked at him as calmly as she could. "A pallet by the hearthside will have to do."
"Of course," he said. "Did you think I meant with you?"
She sucked in a breath sharply. Yearning, loneliness and disappointment swamped her. Lachlann MacKerron was not the tender, loving man she remembered, the one who haunted her dreams. He was cool, snappish, reserved, nearly a stranger. She could not expect anything more from him, after so long.
But oh, how she wanted more. Instead, she whirled and fled the stable.