"Turn onto your stomach, MacFane," she instructed quietly.
He did not argue but simply did as she told him. Ariella suspected the powder she had given him had taken effect.
Now that he was on his stomach, it was far easier for her to massage him. She focused on the valley of his back for a while, and when she was finished, she placed one of the warm swine bladders on it, so the muscles could absorb the heat. Then she moved up, gently kneading the solid layers of spasm on each side of his spine. Little by little the hardness beneath her fingers began to yield. Her touch grew firmer, delved deeper, encouraging the muscles to release their grip. When her hands began to ache, she retrieved the other swine bladder, which she had kept warm before the fire, and gently placed it on his upper back.
MacFane's eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply, his head resting against his arm. Wanting him to be as comfortable as possible, Ariella removed his boots, examining his injured leg as she did so. He had told her it had shattered when his horse had collapsed on it. She ran her hands up the muscled calf, bent it slightly at the knee, then continued her journey along his thigh. The bone seemed straight enough, and from what she could tell, he had not lost any length. But she knew a bad break could plague a person with pain for the rest of his life. The leg was stiff, so she rubbed some ointment into her palms and began to massage it. After watching him limp this past month, she wondered if there was anything that could be done to ease the ache and strengthen the muscles. Perhaps with exercise--
"I didn't fall."
She looked up at him, surprisedthat he was still awake. "Pardon?"
"I didn't fall," he repeated thickly. "Someone put a spur under my saddle."
"I know." She continued to massage his leg.
He nodded with satisfaction and closed his eyes again. "I'm not in the habit of falling off my goddamn horse." The words were slurred, but she could hear the anger in them.
She thought of him thundering into her camp wielding his sword in both hands. No, MacFane was not in the habit of falling off his horse. Someone was trying to drive him away. The arrow hadn't worked, so a spur had been placed under his saddle, apparently in the hopes that the fall would not only injure him physically, but humiliate him in front of the entire clan.
"I think it was Niall," he mumbled.
She paused. "Why do you say that?"
"He has never tried to hide his contempt for me." He lifted his lids and regarded her a moment, his blue eyes suddenly intense. "And I've seen the way he looks at you." His expression was dark, as if the matter angered him. Then he sighed and closed his eyes once more.
Ariella considered this. Niall had shared her loathing of MacFane when he had failed to answer her father's missive. She had even encouraged his fury when her clan had been attacked and MacFane had failed to come. She could understand his expressing his contempt, but could Niall actually be trying to drive him away? To do so would not be in the best interests of the clan. Was it possible his rage was that great?
Deeply disturbed by the possibility, she removed the cooling swine bladders from MacFane's back. He shifted onto his side, his head still resting on the hard pillow of his arm, his dark-brown hair spilling loosely over his massive shoulder. Deciding she would bind his ribs with the linen strips tomorrow, she drew a blanket over him, then stayed there a moment, studying him.
He exuded an extraordinary aura of power and vulnerability as he lay there, injured and drugged, yet somehow still formidable. How cruelly ironic, that after fighting so many battles as the great Black Wolf, his greatest enemy now was his own body. Perhaps she had asked too much of him by bringing him here to train her people. From early morning to late evening he labored--training, planning, overseeing the fortifications to the castle. His demanding days would exhaust a man at the peak of his physical abilities, never mind one for whom it was an effort to cross a room or mount the stairs. And now someone was determined to make him leave, even if it meant injuring him in the process. It was wrong to expect he should remain under such circumstances, even if he had promised to remain until they found a new laird. She must send him away as soon as he was fit to ride, before he was injured even worse than he had been today. In his current state he could do nothing more to help them. It was now up to her to find a warrior who had an army and who could wield the sword.
Yet as she stood beside him watching the even rise and fall of his chest, she could not help but wonder what would happen to MacFane when he left. He had no family or clan who would joyously celebrate his return. Instead he would go back to the dank, filthy hut he shared with Gavin, where his days were nothing but long, empty hours filled with pain, drink, and bitterness. Although this fact had never bothered her before, suddenly she found the idea abhorrent. However MacFane had failed his people, did he really deserve to be condemned to such a miserable existence?
His brow was creased, indicating he still struggled with his pain. He moaned slightly and buried his face in his arm, as if trying to escape his discomfort. A dark lock of hair slipped across the clenched line of his jaw. Without thinking, Ariella leaned over and gently brushed the hair off his face, her fingers grazing the sandy surface of his cheek. MacFane's hand instantly clamped around her wrist, binding her to him with bruising force.
He opened his eyes and glared at her, his gaze menacing as he fought to clear the mists of alcohol and herbs. When he realized who she was, his grip eased, but he did not release her. Instead he pulled her down, until she hovered barely a breath away from him.
"I will not leave you, Ariella," he whispered roughly, "until I know you are safe."
Ariella stared at him, her heart beating rapidly, wondering how he could have known what she was thinking. "You cannot stay, MacFane," she countered. "Whoever wants you gone will not stop until you are dead."
Malcolm released her wrist and waited for her to move away from him. When she did not, he hesitantly laid his fingers against her cheek. "I'm already dead," he murmured, fascinated by the softness of her skin. "I have been for a long time."
They stayed like that a moment, staring at each other. And then, overcome with weariness, Malcolm sighed and drifted into sleep, his hand still pressed against the silk of Ariella's cheek.