In the midst of the glen, Rose loosed Wink’s leash from her jesses. The instant the falcon was released, she took to the sky. Rose lowered her hand, massaging the muscles of her arm, which ached with the burden of carrying the bird for so long. She smiled as Wink circled overhead. How free the falcon flew, unbound by worry and the weight of the world.
For a long while the bird turned lazily in the sky, skimming past the emerald tops of the trees, her tawny wings fluttering in the gentle breeze.
Rose envied the falcon’s freedom. Ever since learning of her betrothal, Rose had felt trapped, like a leaf caught in a swift current, tossed at a whim, steered by destiny. The thought that she had no control over her own future filled her with dread.
Wink dove suddenly and soared past, rising high again in the sky, and Rose shielded her eyes with her arm to watch the bird’s antics. The falcon might not see well enough to hunt, but she’d never lost her love of speed.
After a while, in the distance, Rose heard Father Peter summoning the pilgrims to continue their journey. With a light sigh, she held her gloved hand aloft, beckoning Wink. The trusty falcon obediently glided down, alighting on her wrist, and while Rose secured her jesses, Wink plumped her feathers as if boasting of her flight.
How the man stole upon her unawares, Rose didn’t know, but the instant she wheeled around, the dark, chained felon filled her vision like some giant raven swooping down to carry her off. Her heart slammed against her ribs, and a rough gasp was ripped from her throat.
A dozen fears coursed through her brain: she was alone; she was cornered; he meant her harm; no one would help her. And yet she stood frozen to the spot, as if by some perverse enchantment. Though every instinct told her to run—run now, run fast—her feet wouldn’t budge.
Instead, as if she moved through honey, she slowly lifted her gaze past the ominous shackles and the heavy chain linking them, up between his powerful arms to his massive chest, past the dark scrub of his strong chin, settling on his wide mouth. He didn’t speak, and the continuing silence frayed her nerves until she could bear it no longer.
"What is it?" she whispered, her nostrils flaring. "What do ye want?"
Surer than a falcon on the hunt, he grabbed her free wrist. She yanked back, but his grip was firm. She glanced down. His great scarred knuckles seemed to devour her trembling hand. The iron of his shackles was cold upon her wrist, and she swallowed hard as the links of the chain softly clanked against her sleeve.
Against her will, her gaze was wrenched back up to his face. He frowned, and she noted the color of his eyes. Gray. Unrelenting gray. Cold, hard, sinister gray. The color of consuming fog and impending death. A scream gathered in her throat, and she drank in a lung full of air to give it voice.
"Hush," he quietly warned her.
She should have ignored his threat. After all, a host of pilgrims stood nearby. A dozen defenders would have come to her rescue had she cried out. But something flickered in his gaze, some suggestion of controlled composure that calmed her enough to prevent the gathering scream.
He dropped his gaze to her bare hand, then turned it until ‘twas palm up. She watched, breathless, and it occurred to her that he might snap her wrist with a single clench of his fist, strangle her with the length of chain, or draw a dagger to slay her, and no one would reach her in time to prevent him.
"Open your hand," he bade her.
As if he’d uttered a spell, she slowly unfurled her fingers. With his other hand, he dropped something carefully into her palm, something small and round and warm. Furrowing her brow, she peered down. ‘Twas a single blue robin’s egg.
She blinked up at him, confused. Was it a trick of the light, or did she detect slivers of azure amidst the gray of his eyes, a warm spark in the cool ash? ‘Twas extinguished almost as quickly as ‘twas born, and he released her hand with equal haste.
"For the bird," he explained.
She glanced in wonder at the gift. Of course. Food for her falcon.
Before she could gather her wits to thank him, he nodded in silent farewell. In a sweep of dark wool, worn leather, and rough iron, he turned to rejoin the group.
Once Rose set the egg on the grass, Wink made quick work of it. But ‘twas a long while down the road before Rose’s heart ceased its erratic beating.
Wilham gave a low whistle when Blade fell in beside him. "Well. She’s magnificent," he whispered.
"Aye," Blade blandly agreed, his eye fixed on the trail.
"Make a man a fine prize, eh?" Wilham prodded.
"Lovely as a spring day?" Wilham mused.
Blade shrugged. "Pity about the eye, though."
Wilham stopped in his tracks with a disgruntled frown, and Blade walked past him, the hint of a smile twisting his mouth.
For all Wilham’s virtues, he could be an incessant nag, worse than a doting mother, constantly goading Blade to abandon the road, to take a wife, to purchase himself a parcel of land and settle down. Blade didn’t want to hear another word about the lass with the falcon. Not after the way the woman had knocked his brains all askew.
He shouldn’t have spoken with her. He’d probably frightened her. In a rare moment of distraction, he’d forgotten that he was no longer Sir Pierce of Mirkhaugh, but Blade the mercenary. For an instant, there had been no tragedy, no dishonor, no past.
But the lady wasn’t blind. She could see his damning shackles. She was witness to his shame. Naturally she’d assume he meant her harm.
Approaching her had been doubly foolish considering his mission. Familiarity tainted objectivity. He couldn’t afford to befriend any of the travelers, knowing he planned to expose two of them as assassins.
He hadn’t meant a thing by the gesture. ‘Twas only that he’d seen the lass had brought no food with her, and while it might do her no harm to go hungry till their next meal, the falcon would suffer without proper sustenance. Live prey was hard to come by, but eggs were easy to find. They weren’t as palatable to a peregrine as fresh kill, but they’d serve. And so when he’d discovered a robin warming a nest in the crook of a tree, he’d shooed the bird aside and pilfered one of her clutch.
He meant to hand the egg to the lass with a good scolding, chiding her for bringing along a pet for which she couldn’t care. But once he felt her delicate hand within his fist, once he glimpsed the guarded look in her eyes—eyes the color of polished cobbles at the bottom of a stream, olive and russet and emerald mingled—once he beheld the trembling of her rosy lips, he could only speak gently to her.
He silently damned himself for inspiring such revulsion when he only meant her well, but he supposed such was his curse. After all, good intentions had caused the burden of pain he now bore.
How many miles they trudged, he didn’t know. He paid little heed to the woods around him. Wilham and he had traveled so extensively across the countryside, it sometimes seemed he’d committed every tree to memory. There was little in the landscape to surprise him.
‘Twas strange, however, to travel with so many companions and to stop so frequently. Mounted on fresh horses, Wilham and he could ride fifty miles in a day. What was two days’ ride would take them ten on pilgrimage. He supposed the leisurely pace would ultimately prove a blessing, for he could use the time to unmask Archibald of Laichloan’s enemies. But it didn’t ease Blade’s mounting suspicion, born at The Black Hound, that change was in the wind, that somehow this journey, this pilgrimage, would alter him forever.
By the time the pilgrims paused again, Blade was certain the lass must be thirsty enough to drink the holy water out of the vial the priest wore around his neck. She hadn’t brought a wineskin or even a cup as far as he could see, and no one seemed aware or willing to remedy that. It entered his mind to offer her some of his own beer, but she’d doubtless refuse him. A gentlewoman would hardly drink from a vessel that had touched an outlaw’s lips.
Fortunately, the country cottage where they stopped featured an ale-stake protruding from the thatched roof, a sign that fresh brew was available. Blade noted that the lass dug out a few pennies from her purse at once, giving them to the elderly woman, who’d offered to purchase ale for them. At least she’d brought coin.
He leaned back against the shaded wall of the cottage, waiting his turn. Slaking the thirst of a score of pilgrims would take a while. He could wait.
In the meantime, he harkened to the conversations around him, listening for some clue, some slip of the tongue that would betray the identity of the plotters.
The man named Jacob, the goldsmith, paraded past the other pilgrims, no doubt so they could admire the sunlight flashing off his gold jewelry. The voluptuous dark-haired woman walked beside him. Blade didn’t know her name, but ‘twas obvious the two knew each other. She exchanged sly glances with the goldsmith and giggled at his every word as he expounded upon the details of his craft.
The two tanners, Ivo and Odo, squatted beneath an oak and spoke in barely coherent growls, their conversation consisting of crude comments about an alehouse near Falkirk at which one might procure more than just drink from the alewife.
The three scholars were engaged in another debate, this one regarding the merits of mounted men-at-arms over dismounted archers on the battlefield. Blade could have instantly settled their argument for them—he’d been in enough battles to know—but they’d only find another subject upon which to disagree.
Simon the palmer, clasping a wooden cross in his pale hand, murmured prayers with his head bowed. But when Drogo, the cook, happened near, Simon ceased his prayers and invited him closer to look at the sliver of the bone of Saint Regulus he carried in his satchel.
Blade smirked. He wondered if the bone had belonged to some unfortunate nameless beggar found by the roadside or someone’s butchered pig.
Wilham had wandered off to find a tree, but Blade knew he’d be back soon. During their travels, his comrade had developed a discriminating taste for ale and could correctly identify the proportion of barley, wheat, and oats in almost any brew, which apparently proved so amusing to the alewives that they’d often give him an extra cup at no charge. Blade, of course, had his own ideas about the alewives’ generosity—‘twas Wilham’s bonnie face and not his discerning palate that earned him the ale.
Blade sighed, crossed his arms over his chest, and rested his head against the plaster wall, closing his eyes. He could hear the pilgrims’ gossip much more clearly now. Fulk, the butcher, talked about a recent visit to Edinburgh. The goldsmith, Jacob, chuckled importantly, flirtatiously chiding the woman he now referred to as Lettie. Bryan, the most boisterous of the scholars, addressed the timid lad, asking for his name, and Blade could even hear his soft reply—Guillot.
Then someone touched Blade’s sleeve, and he sprang off the wall. His chains clanked as, in one swift motion, he unfolded his arms and instinctively reached for his absent sword.
His intended victim flinched, hissing, "Holy Mother o’…! Shite! I mean…"
‘Twas her, the lass with the falcon, and he’d done it again—startled her, this time into an oath at odds with her sweet lips. Her hazel eyes were wide, and the cup of ale she held aloft partially spilled over her hand, though she fought to hold it steady.
He let out his breath and lifted his hands in a gesture of apology.
"Well," she said, her rapid pulse visible in the hollow of her throat, "I’d no idea ye were so easily startled. Forgive me."
"My fault," he grumbled, not entirely sure whether her tone was sincere or sarcastic. He glanced about at the pilgrims. Fortunately, the incident hadn’t attracted as much attention as he imagined. The others carried on with their chat, scarcely noticing he’d nearly leaped out of his skin.
"I thought… I’ve brought…" she began, pressing the cup of ale toward him, then blurted, "This is for ye."
He stared at it stupidly.
"To thank ye." She lifted her brows. "For the egg?"
He frowned. She owed him nothing. What he’d done, he’d done out of concern for her pet, no more.
"Unless ye’ve sworn off ale," she added.
"Aye. Nae." He winced. What was wrong with him? Irritated by his own rapidly diminishing wit, he took the ale from her and downed it all at once, wiping the foam from his lip with the back of his sleeve.
She raised a single slender brow in astonishment. "Shall I fetch another?"
Blade shifted his stance. She shouldn’t be conversing with him. A young noblewoman had no business speaking to a shackled mercenary.
He blinked and looked down at her again. Lord, she was a beautiful creature. What had she asked him? Did he want another?
"Nae. ‘Tis enough."
"I’ll gladly bring another if…"
He pressed the cup back into her hands, disconcerted by her attention and eager to be rid of her. "There’s no need. I expected no payment." He saw the old woman emerge from the alehouse, carrying two cups. “Go," he bid her. "Your own ale awaits."
The lass lowered the cup and, with it, her defenses. "‘Twill wait a bit longer," she said, surprising him. In a great show of courage for one so small, she straightened her back and looked him in the eye. "I’ve an offer to make ye."
He swallowed. A dozen highly improper offers dashed through his mind, most of them involving the delectable lass flat on her back. He waited with bated breath, but wisely held his tongue.
"For each day ye fetch an egg for my falcon," she offered, "I’ll buy ye an ale."
He hesitated. ‘Twas unwise to enter into any such dealings with the lass. He knew that. ‘Twasn’t that he was unwilling to fetch food for her bird. He had as soft a heart as any man when it came to the welfare of helpless animals. But such a bargain represented a commitment. It meant that they must see each other, speak to each other, daily. He couldn’t afford to form an alliance with her, no matter how small. Her presence was far too distracting.
There was no question. He couldn’t agree to the bargain. Someone else could fetch eggs for her. She was a bonnie thing. With those dewy eyes and that sweet mouth, she could get any one of the men of the company to do the deed, ale or no ale.
Certainly he, Blade the mercenary, wasn’t the man to agree to such an alliance. ‘Twas foolish. And irresponsible. And dangerous.
What devil put the words in his mouth, he didn’t know. But as soon as they left his tongue, the gratitude lighting her eyes sparked an ember deep inside him that he’d almost forgotten, one that had lain dormant for months.
Her touch upon his arm was fleeting but potent. "Ye won’t regret your kindness, sir."
Blade doubted that. He already regretted it. He watched her whirl away in a swish of scarlet skirts and ebony tresses and cursed himself for a fool.
Wilham strolled out of the woods, sniffing the air as he passed by the other pilgrims, waving the aroma of ale toward him with his hand, then confided to Blade, "Oat with a kiss o’ barley." He flipped a penny into the air with his thumb, catching it again in his hand. "Shall we?"
When Blade didn’t answer, Wilham stopped and inclined his head. "What is it? What’s happened?"
Blade stared bleakly at the ground.
He raised his eyes to glare at Wilham.
"Holy Mother, Blade, what did I miss?"
Blade clenched his jaw, then released it. "Nothin’," he said. "Nothin’. Go buy yourself a pint." He nodded toward the alehouse door. "Buy me one as well." When Wilham had gone, he added in a mutter, "I’ll pour it o’er my witless head."