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The Highlands of Scotland
Every step of his mount was agony.
It is nothing, Roarke told himself harshly, shifting his weight to ease the torturous pressure on his spine. But the relentless throbbing in his muscles continued, an incessant reminder that his body no longer enjoyed the hard resilience he had once known.
It was a bitter realization.
"'Tis getting late," observed Eric, urging his horse alongside Roarke. The enormous, fair-haired warrior studied the fading light. "We should make camp."
Roarke shook his head.
Eric stared at Roarke, his blue gaze penetrating. Roarke returned his friend's scrutiny with rigid indifference.
"As you wish," said Eric after a moment, shrugging. "I was only thinking of the horses."
"We will go farther." He resisted the urge to shift his weight.
"Strange that there's been no sign of him yet," remarked Donald, idly stretching his arms over his head. He yawned. "Perhaps the elusive Falcon and his charming band will be more apt to introduce themselves once we've settled for the night."
"That's what they did to the last men Laird MacTier sent to capture them," growled Myles. The heavyset warrior spat contemptuously on the ground. "Attacked them as they lay snoring after knocking out the men assigned to keep watch."
"Stripped them bloody naked and stole their horses," Eric added. "The fools had to walk back to the holding wearing nothing but a few strategically placed branches. Laird MacTier was furious."
Donald arched one brow in bemusement. "Now, that doesn't seem very sporting. Stealing weapons and valuables is one thing, but why would the Falcon steal their plaids? "
"To humiliate his enemies." Roarke was unable to contain his disgust. Better to slay one's opponent, quickly and with honor, rather than strip him like a bairn and send him limping naked back to his clan. "The Falcon and his men prefer the weapon of shame to the clean cut of death. If they make MacTier look like a fool, then other clans will view us all as fools. That is why we must crush this band of outlaws."
"Yet MacTier wants the Falcon taken alive," mused Donald.
"He wants to kill the troublesome bastard himself," Roarke explained. The Falcon had been a festering thorn in his laird's backside for months now, and his patience was at an end. "MacTier also needs him alive so he can learn where the Falcon has hidden the fortune he has stolen from us."
"We needn't drag him all the way back to our holding just for that." Eric's massive hand clamped the hilt of the heavy dirk strapped to his waist. "A few strips of flesh peeled away, and he'll tell us exactly what we want to know."
"Our orders are to bring him back alive, Eric," Roarke reminded him.
The warrior reluctantly released his weapon. "I prefer battle to this tedious business of hunting," he complained darkly.
"In battle I don't have to choose between whom I kill and whom I maim."
"By God, that's an inspiring reflection!" said Donald, chuckling. "No doubt when we return home you will enchant many a fair maiden with your gallant philosophy."
Eric snorted. "I leave the enchanting of maidens to you. You have the pretty face for such idiocy."
"'Tis not my face that wins their hearts," Donald maintained, although with his handsomely carved features, there was no denying his appeal to women. "'Tis simply that I know how to put a gentle maiden at ease--unlike you, who with that fearsome Viking scowl manage to send them screaming home to their mamas before you even bid them good day."
Eric's expression darkened. "Women are feeble, silly creatures."
"Eric's right," agreed Myles, scratching his shaved head. "Fawning over women is a sport for fools." He belched.
Donald sighed. "'Tis clear you both have been removed from the company of lasses too long," he mused. "Tonight I will begin your lessons on how to win a maid's attentions, and soon you'll have them flocking to you like starving birds to ripe berries."
"I have no desire for women to flock to me," Eric replied. "Women sap a man's strength and waste his time, which is better spent training for battle."
"Ah, but there's nothing sweeter than the softness of a lass pressing tightly against your hardness," rhapsodized Donald dreamily, "or the velvety caress of her moist, parted lips grazing upon your--"
"There is a clearing ahead," interrupted Roarke. "Go and see if it is a satisfactory place for us to make camp."
"Gladly," Eric growled. "Anything to escape Donald's infernal clatter." He dug his heels into his mount and cantered toward the clearing.
"The day will come when you beg me for advice on winning a lass's heart," Donald shouted cheerfully, riding fast behind him.
"Go with them, Myles," ordered Roarke, "and try to keep Eric from killing Donald before I get there."
"It won't be easy," Myles muttered, heading toward the clearing.
Roarke watched as his warriors disappeared into the shadowy veil of trees. Certain he was alone, he slowly bent his head from side to side, groaning with relief at the ripple of cracking sounds that rewarded his effort. Then he raised his arms and flexed them, easing the painful knots of tension in the damaged muscles. He grunted and stretched forward on his horse, trying to loosen the stiffness in his aching back. The movements did little to alleviate his discomfort, but even a marginal improvement was better than none at all. Now he would be able to feign a modicum of ease as he dismounted before his men, rather than succumbing to the treachery of his weary, battered body.
"Look here," called Donald, seeing Roarke approach. "It appears someone has been here before us." He yanked a shimmering dirk from the earth at the base of a tree. "Someone with a penchant for lavish weaponry," he added, turning the heavily jeweled hilt over.
Myles's eyes grew wide. "Bloody hell, that must be worth a small fortune."
"It is not the weapon of a warrior," scoffed Eric. "Only a fool would trust his life to such a clumsy piece."
Uneasiness flashed through Roarke. Dusk had withered to a smoky caul, making it difficult to see through the shadows of the thickly entwined pine and rowan trees. A whisper of sound caressed the stillness, barely more than the flutter of a wing, but a sound that somehow struck him as out of place in the sweetly scented arbor of these woods. He narrowed his gaze and fought to distinguish between the shifting shapes surrounding them, straining to hear beyond his warriors' irritatingly loud ruminations on the dirk.
There was nothing except the occasional twitter of a bird, and the soft rustle of a small animal as it skittered across the loamy ground.
You are being foolish, Roarke told himself impatiently, wondering at his tenseness. It is nothing.
Suddenly a giant net dropped from the trees, trapping his startled men like rabbits.
"Got them!" shouted a voice gleefully from above. "Three fat flies in one sticky web!"
"Good work, Magnus!" called another, "but there's still one left!"
Roarke jammed his heels into his mount and flew forward, barely evading the second net.
"You missed, Lewis!" shouted a tall fellow who dropped from the trees with feline agility. He regarded Roarke with cool wariness, considering his next move.
"Sorry!" apologized a chastened voice over Roarke's head.
"Not yer fault, lad," the first voice assured him. "He's as slippery as a fish on a fire, that one is!"
"Never mind that, somebody get him!" commanded the tall one, who had now been joined on the ground by a stocky man with wildly curling hair. Ignoring Roarke, they grabbed the ends of the net and began racing in a circle around his bellowing warriors, who were swearing and knocking each other over as they vainly attempted to free themselves.
Suddenly another warrior burst from the trees upon a magnificent steel-colored charger, his sword a flash of silver against the swiftly waning light. The new attacker wore a dark, battered helmet and a coat of finely wrought chain mail over coarse woolen leggings. His eyes were two black slits, but the grim determination with which the warrior gripped his weapon left no doubt as to his intent.
Roarke charged forward and met the first thrust of his opponent's blade, edging him back, but only for a second. The warrior instantly raised his sword and thundered toward him once more, thrusting before Roarke could better his own position. Roarke whipped up his own blade in a powerful arc, ably deflecting the warrior's blow in a golden burst of sparks. The clang of steel mixed with the ignoble swearing and howling coming from his now hopelessly entangled soldiers.
His attacker was no match for Roarke's size and strength, but what the fellow lacked in power he more than compensated for with deftness and speed. Roarke thrust again and again, each strike edging his opponent back a little farther, until finally they were beyond the clearing and he sensed the advantage was his. Utilizing every shred of his strength he swung his sword high into the air as he prepared to hack off his opponent's head.
Pain lanced his buttock, reducing his roar to a startled bellow. Another arrow sliced the air beside his ear and flew toward his adversary, who lurched to one side, then flapped his arms helplessly as he toppled off his horse. A third shaft whistled past, causing Roarke's mount to rear, which had the distressing effect of driving the iron point buried in his bum even deeper. Cursing savagely, he released his reins and sword to grab at the blasted arrow, then flailed at empty air before crashing unceremoniously beside his helmeted attacker.
"Move so much as a whisker, ye great hulkin' beast, and I'll plant this arrow straight in yer shriveled, greedy heart!" declared a voice from above.
Roarke glanced at his sword, which lay impossibly beyond his reach. Summoning the mangled remains of his dignity, he gritted his teeth and eased himself onto his good buttock.
"Not so bold now that ye've a shaft up yer arse, are ye?" His captor cackled. "Let that be a lesson to ye, for darin' to tangle with the mighty Falcon!"
Roarke stared at the ancient old man with the quivering bow and arrow aimed none too steadily at his chest. "You're the Falcon?" he demanded, unable to conceal his astonishment.
The snowy-haired thief's eyes narrowed. "If ye're thinkin' to make sport with me, ye should know I've killed dozens of men for less." He stretched the string of his bow to a menacing tautness. "Were ye wantin' another arrow in ye?"
"I meant no insult," Roarke assured him, eyeing the trembling arrow precariously gripped in his captor's gnarled hand. "It's just that you have a band of men working with you." He glanced at the three who now had his bellowing warriors trussed in their net. "I assumed you were their leader."
The old man regarded him warily, evaluating his explanation. Suddenly his wrinkled mouth split into a yellow smile. "No harm done, laddie," he said, striking a jaunty pose. "'Tis easy enough to see how ye might be confused, facin' such a formidable warrior as myself. That's the Falcon lyin' there beside ye," he continued, waving his weapon at the fallen warrior. "An ye'd best hope he's not sorely injured, or I'll be buryin' another shaft in ye!"
Roarke glanced at his opponent, who hadn't stirred since hitting the ground. Clearly the fellow's fall had dazed him. Infuriated that he had been trapped by the very prey he stalked, Roarke reached over and roughly knocked off the Falcon's helmet.
"My God," he drawled hoarsely.
The dazed warrior's eyes opened and stared at him in confusion. Their color was a brilliant swirl of emerald and gold, like a Highlands forest in the shifting sunlight. The infamous Falcon studied Roarke a moment, the fine crescents of her brows arched, as if trying to remember how she had come to be lying upon the ground beside him. She showed no sign of fear but merely childlike curiosity, as if his proximity to her was entirely acceptable, if only she could recall the explanation. Roarke studied the delicate perfection of her in awe, wondering when he had ever seen such silky skin, a nose so elegantly sculpted, or lips as full and invitingly curved. Her hair spilled across the ground in a glossy dark cape, its tangled strands rippling over the crushed grass like fine dark ale. He wanted to say something, but his ability to speak had deserted him, and so he simply stared, lost in the guileless depths of her gaze.
"Ye took a wee tumble, Melantha," said the old man. "A good thing ye were wearin' yer helmet, or ye'd have cracked yer head like an egg," he added, chuckling. "Are ye all right?"
Melantha's gaze remained fastened upon the stranger staring down at her. "I fell?"
Roarke nodded. Had the arrow in his backside arrived but a fraction of a second later, he would have severed this magnificent creature's head from her neck. A woman. Little more than a girl, really. Shame sluiced through him, making him feel sick.
How he ever would have forgiven himself for performing such an atrocity, he had no idea.
Melantha studied the handsome warrior looking down at her, confused by the concern she saw etched in the lines of his weathered face. Her mind was wrapped in a gauzy shroud, but it was clear that this man was most troubled by her fall.
"I'm fine," she assured him, reaching up to lay her hand against the roughness of his cheek. The intimate gesture seemed to surprise him, but she did not withdraw her palm. Instead she pressed it against the warmth of his skin, fascinated by the hard contour of his jaw against her slender fingers.
"I doubt this brute is overly concerned about how ye're feeling," interjected Magnus, "seeing as he was just about to cut yer head off when I shot him in the arse."
The veil cloaking Melantha's mind instantly disintegrated, releasing her memory in an icy rush. She snatched back her hand and rolled away to grab her fallen sword before nimbly rising to her feet.
"Who are you?" she demanded, pointing her blade at Roarke's throat.
He winced as he tried to balance himself on his good hip. "My name is Roarke."
"Now, that's a fine name," observed Magnus, leaning casually against his bow. "It means 'outstanding ruler.' Are ye a laird then, kiddie?"
Roarke shook his head, his gaze still fixed on Melantha. Her loose-fitting coat of finely wrought chain mail and her shapeless leggings effectively concealed any hint of her feminine figure, yet Roarke found himself stirred by the lean, willowy grace of her as she stood over him.
"I am a warrior," he said.
"From which clan?" Melantha's sword was poised to slash his neck if he so much as breathed the wrong way. "And spare me your lies, for if I hear a different answer from one of your fine soldiers, my men will enjoy slowly flaying each of you until we have the truth."
"From the Clan MacTier." Roarke watched in fascination as her eyes narrowed.
"You're rather far from your holding," she observed tautly. "What are you doing in these woods?"
"We are on our way to the MacDuff lands," Roarke lied. "We have been entrusted with a message to be delivered to their laird."
She eyed him suspiciously. "What message? "
"The message is for Laird MacDuff's ears alone."
The tall, agile fellow who had first leaped from the trees approached. He did not appear to be much past twenty-two, but the hard set of his face indicated he had long since lost the whimsy of youth. His shoulder-length hair was of brown and gold, and he bore a neatly shaped beard to match, which served to obscure his relative lack of years.
"They carry no message." He regarded Roarke with contempt.
"How do you know, Colin?" asked Melantha.
"Because the others have already revealed that they were coming here to capture the Falcon," he replied. "It seems we have caught four more of Laird MacTier's finest." His tone was heavily derisive.
Melantha pressed the point of her sword into the base of Roarke's throat. "Be warned," she said ominously, "I have no patience for men who lack the courage to speak the truth."
"And you be warned," Roarke growled, shoving her blade away, "that I will not be prodded like a slab of stringy meat with this rusty sword of yours."
Colin sprinted forward and jabbed his own weapon at Roarke's chest. "Do that again," he invited with deadly calm, "and I'll make certain it is the last thing you ever do upon this earth."
"Here, now, lads, that'll do," objected Magnus. "There's no call for more fighting today, to my way of thinking. These MacTiers have been caught with little harm done save for an arrow in this big beast here, and while that might sting a bit, I don't believe 'tis going to kill him."
"A pity," Colin snapped, his sword still prodding Roarke. "Perhaps I should remedy that."
"That's enough, Colin," said Melantha. "Take him over to the others and bind him. Lewis will watch them while we talk."
"On your feet, MacTier," ordered Colin, keeping his sword at Roarke's chest.
Roarke awkwardly rose and limped toward his men, clenching his jaw against the pain streaking through his buttock. His warriors watched him glumly through the tangled prison of netting.
"Is your injury serious?" demanded Eric, unable to see the arrow projecting from his backside.
"No," Roarke replied shortly.
"Where is it?" Donald asked.
Roarke hesitated. Realizing he could hardly walk around with an arrow sticking out of his backside and not have them notice, he turned.
"That's--most unfortunate," managed Donald, trying his best not to laugh.
"Don't believe you've been struck there before," Myles commented.
"It will need stitches," Eric said. "The flesh there is soft and easily torn--"
"It's nothing!" Roarke snapped, wishing they would all shut the hell up. "Forget it."
"Give me your wrists," ordered Colin, brandishing a length of rope. "And don't try anything, or Lewis will gut you like a fish."
A gangly, awkward looking youth with blood red hair and freckle-spattered skin nervously stepped forward. Roarke doubted young Lewis had much experience gutting anything that wasn't small and already dead, but he refrained from commenting on this. Instead he obligingly held out his wrists and permitted Colin to secure him to a tree.
"Lewis, you watch over them while the rest of us talk," instructed Colin. " If any of them gives you any trouble, kill him."
Lewis glanced apprehensively at Roarke. Roarke glowered, causing the poor lad to stumble back. Roarke rolled his eyes, unable to believe he had permitted himself to be captured by such a ridiculous band of misfits. If only his hands were free and he did not have this goddamn arrow stuck in his ass he could easily overcome the whole bloody lot of them.
As it was, there was little more he could do than scowl as the other members of the Falcon's band gathered just beyond the clearing.