“He must think you a fool,” Gannon said in disgust.
“It matters naught what he thinks. What matters is what he will know when my sword slides through his heart.”
“I think you may have to fight your brothers for that honor. He has brought much harm to Mairin and Keeley.”
“And Rionna,” Caelen said. “He thinks to weaken us through our women.”
“ ’Tis not much mark of a man when he wages war against those weaker than himself.”
“I want you to send word to Ewan and tell him what has happened. Tell him there are new threats against his wife and daughter and that Cameron has escalated his attacks. Then I want you to put men on an around-the-clock watch. I want someone watching all approaches to the keep at all times. I want you working with the men immediately. They’re going to train and train hard. They should have plenty of motivation now if they had none before.”
Gannon nodded and started down the hall.
“Tell Sarah to bring up water and broth for Rionna,” he called after Gannon.
Gannon held up a hand in acknowledgment before disappearing down the stairs.
Caelen quietly reentered the chamber to check on Rionna. She hadn’t moved from where he’d put her on the bed. The furs were pulled over her shoulders and her eyes were closed.
Wanting to see if she was truly sleeping, he leaned close and listened to her soft, even breathing. When she didn’t stir, he drew away and went to add more wood to the fire so she’d be warm.
When the flames were blazing once more, he sank into the chair and bowed his head. He’d been so cavalier in leaving for the hunt. Food had seemed like the most important priority. He’d thought to feed his clan and then see to its protection. His first action and decision as laird and he’d made a huge mistake. A mistake his wife had paid dearly for.
Rionna pressed gingerly at her still swollen eye, wincing when she touched a particularly sore spot. Caelen was below in the courtyard directing the training of the men. He’d left her after making sure she ate a good meal and instructing her to rest.
’Twas the truth, she’d had more rest over the last week than she could bear. She’d wallowed. She’d sulked. She’d dealt with her fear and her sense of failure. Now … Now she was just furious.
Furious with the men who’d trespassed on her lands. Furious with the cowardice of Duncan Cameron. Furious that she’d been rendered helpless against a vicious attack.
No longer could she accept her husband’s decree that she become a meek, feminine version of whatever fantasy he’d built in his mind of the perfect wife. That wasn’t who she was. He should have given more thought to stepping in to marry her if he wasn’t prepared to accept a wife he considered wholly unsuitable.
She dressed in trews and a tunic she saved for what she viewed as special occasions. It was soft. No holes, no stains, and the hem was finely stitched.
It was overlayed in red velvet with gold stitching. It had taken every coin she’d saved for three years, but it was the finest thing she’d ever owned.
She wiped at the dirt on her boots and rubbed a finger over the toe where the leather was so thin that a hole had nearly been worn. She had need of a new pair, but it was a luxury she couldn’t contemplate, not when everyone else in her clan had shoes and boots just as worn, if not worse.
Still, she could dream of how a new pair would feel on her feet. Fur lined. She could practically feel the softness surrounding her toes.
She stood and her hand went automatically to her throat where she tested the soreness. It still hurt to swallow and her voice had a soft rasp that hadn’t yet gone away. She probably looked a fright, but after so many days, she was ready to be out of her chamber.
She took to the stairs, feeling a moment’s panic that she’d left the safety of her chamber. She stopped midway down, black dots swimming in front of her eyes as she panted for breath.
Such weakness infuriated her. She clenched her fist, slammed her eyes shut, her nostrils flaring as she sucked in deep breaths.
For too long she’d hidden in her chamber because the idea of going out terrified her. It was a weakness she’d never admit. The attack and the days following were a humiliation she’d live with for the rest of her life.
“My lady, you shouldn’t be out of your chamber. Do you need my aid returning? Is there something you have need of? I would be happy to fetch it for you.”
She glanced up to see Caelen’s commander standing on the stairwell, blocking her path down. His hand gripped her arm and concern burned bright in his gaze.
She brushed off his hand with a push of her own and nearly took a step back from the warrior before she caught herself. She forced her chin up and then leveled a calm stare at him.
“I am well and nay, I do not require anything. I’m on my way below stairs.”
“Perhaps ’tis best to wait the laird. I’ll summon him and tell him you’d like to leave your chamber.”
She frowned. “Am I a prisoner in my own home? Am I not allowed out of my room without the laird’s permission?”
“You mistake me, my lady. ’Tis my concern for your well-being that drives my statement. I’m sure the laird would want to escort you himself once he’s ascertained whether you’re well enough to be below stairs.”
“I can ascertain for myself that I am well enough to be up and out of my chamber. Kindly remove yourself from my path so that I may continue downward.”
Gannon didn’t look happy with the dictate. He wavered a moment, clearly trying to decide whether he should cleave to his initial idea.
She wouldn’t wait. Knowing he would do nothing to harm her, she pushed at his chest until he relented and stepped aside. He didn’t allow her to pass, though. He cupped her elbow and took her hand in his, tucking it around his arm.
“At least allow me to escort you. I would not want you to fall on the stairs.”
She nearly yanked her hand from his, so great was her frustration. But she was getting what she wanted and she didn’t want to risk him forcing her back to her chamber and summoning Caelen, who’d likely burst a blood vessel over her apparel and the fact that she was out of bed.
When they reached the bottom, she retrieved her hand and hurried away from the warrior. She had no clear direction in mind, only that she wanted to be away from Gannon.
Fresh air was top on her list of priorities, but she couldn’t go into the courtyard. Caelen was there training with the men. She opted to go through the kitchens and out the side where the distance between the keep and the stone skirt was greater and she could see the mountains in the distance.
Ignoring several of the women’s surprised exclamations on her way out, Rionna breathed deep as soon as the crisp air hit her in the face.
It was heavenly. Freeing. Her throat and lungs seemed to open up and loose the horrid constriction she’d lived with for so many days.
She stepped into the snow, enjoying the loud crunch and the coldness seeping around her toes. Finally, she felt alive again. Reinvigorated.
The wind whipped at her hair and sent a shiver down her spine. She’d completely forgotten her cloak, so in a hurry had she been to get out of her chamber.
Clutching her arms around her waist for warmth, she walked along the wall of the keep, leaving small footprints in the fresh powder.
As a child, she had lain in the snow and made shapes with Keeley. They’d pretended to be snow princesses waiting for their prince to rescue them. He wore only the warmest furs and the finest clothing. His steed was unmatched in beauty and speed. He’d ride in, wrap her in his furs, and bear her away to a land where it was always warm and sunny.
Rionna laughed softly. Such imaginations she and Keeley had. Always with their heads in the clouds. The worst day in Rionna’s life had been the day her father had attacked Keeley. And then Rionna’s mother had cried Keeley a whore and banished her from the clan.
Keeley had been her only friend. The only other girl who’d understood Rionna’s odd tendencies. Keeley had encouraged Rionna’s practice with a bow. She’d applauded every time Rionna had struck the center of the target. She’d exclaimed over Rionna’s skill with a knife, swearing that Rionna could hold off an entire army just by wielding a dagger.
Rionna had tried to teach Keeley those skills, warning that lasses needed to know how to protect themselves. But Keeley had laughed and said she was hopeless in such matters and that she would one day have her prince to protect her anyway.
Well, Keeley had gotten the prince, and Rionna had gotten the skills to protect herself. She wasn’t sure who had come out ahead in the bargain.
She found a large bolder and eased down onto the cold surface. Her arse would freeze if she stayed long, but she wasn’t quite ready for the confrontation that must be forced with her husband.
Caelen walked through the kitchens, his expression grim. Rionna shouldn’t be below stairs yet. Hell, she shouldn’t even be out of bed. He intended to keep her there at least another fortnight.
But what worried him more than her being out of bed was her state of mind. The attack had deeply affected her. She’d been quiet, reserved, timid even. And Rionna was not a timid lass. He feared that the attack had irrevocably changed her or damaged her in some way. And he was helpless to change it.
He stopped at the doorway leading outside, after the women in the kitchens reported that she’d not paused on her way out. As he stepped into the snow, he looked up to see her sitting in the distance, her back to him as she stared up at the mountains.
The knot he suffered so frequently since his return from the hunt clutched his throat as he watched her hair blow this way and that in the breeze.
She seemed so slight. Fragile. It was a word he kept coming back to over and over, but it aptly described her appearance.
She looked alone and vulnerable, as if she had no one in the world to protect her. No one had protected her when she’d needed it the most. It was something he’d have to live with for the rest of his life.
“Laird, do not be angry. What she wears is a comfort to her. She needs that right now.”
Caelen turned in surprise at Sarah’s words. The woman stood behind him, watching Rionna with worried eyes.
“Think you I give a damn what she wears? I’m more concerned with her well-being.”
Sarah nodded approvingly and Caelen gestured her away.
He stepped softly through the snow, not wanting to frighten or disturb Rionna. He thought she resembled a doe, poised to run at the slightest sound or provocation. But as he drew closer, he could see the vacant, distant look in her eyes as she stared away from the keep.
Had the attack damaged her permanently? Would she never be right again? It was early to worry over such possibilities, but he couldn’t help but wonder at how deep the scars would run.
“Rionna,” he called softly.
He heard her quick intake of breath as if he had indeed startled her. She whirled around, her eyes a little wild until her gaze settled on him and then she quieted.
She went so still and continued to stare at him in a way that unsettled him. It was eerie. She studied him as if she were about to announce judgment on him and find him lacking. Perhaps ’twas his own guilt speaking volumes, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was angry. Very, very angry.
“ ’Tis cold. You should be indoors where it’s warm.”
He slid a hand over her shoulder and squeezed, trying to bring her comfort.
To his surprise she laughed. ’Twas not a joyous sound that bubbled from her throat. It was harsh and hoarse. It sounded pained.
“You probably think I’m daft,” she said.
“Nay,” he said gently. “Not daft.”
“You also probably think I’m a scared rabbit now, afraid to leave my chamber, afraid to venture outside for fear of being attacked again.”
“Nay, lass. I think what you need is time to heal. Your courage will come.”
She turned then and pinned those glowing eyes upon him until he felt unsettled by the directness of her gaze.
“I’m not afraid, Laird. ’Tis the truth I’m furious.”
Anger was an appropriate response under the circumstances, and she did look furious. Sparks fair shot from her eyes and her entire body trembled. For the first time he relaxed, relief sudden and fierce. He knew how to respond to an angry Rionna. But the beaten, worn-down, fragile woman who’d occupied her body for the last week baffled and confused him.
“ ’Tis good you’re angry,” he offered sagely.
She shot to her feet and spun around, glaring at him. Her fists were formed into tight balls at her sides, and she looked like she wanted to take a swing at him.
“Even if ’tis you I’m furious with?”
Now that he wasn’t prepared for. He frowned, knowing that he had to tread lightly here. The lass wasn’t right yet. Her emotions were all over the place, and he didn’t want to upset her further.
“ ’Tis sorry I am that I wasn’t here to protect you, Rionna. ’Tis something I’ll regret my life through. I should have better seen to your protection. ’Tis not a mistake I’ll make again.”