He pulled away and tipped her chin up so that he could look into her eyes. The candles he’d left burning provided just enough light that she could see his grim expression and the determination in his eyes to uncover her secrets.
She sighed and looked away. “You know what kind of man my father was. And that when my father tried to force himself on Keeley, my mother made her an outcast. She was my cousin. And Keeley wasn’t the only young lass my father targeted. I knew of his evil from a very young age and I always feared …”
She sucked in a deep breath and looked back at Caelen. “All I could think was what if he turned his attention to me? If he could do such a thing to his niece, what would it matter if I was his daughter?
“I grew breasts at a young age. I had a pleasing shape that I knew men liked to look at. So I began to hide my attributes and make myself look more like a lad than a woman. And I learned to wield a sword because I swore if my father ever tried to force himself on me, I would be able to protect myself.”
Anger and disgust simmered in Caelen’s eyes. He touched her cheek, stroking his finger from her jawline to her temple and back down again.
“You were right to do so,” he admitted. “His obsession with Keeley never ended. Even years later. He would have raped her just weeks past if I hadn’t intervened when he dragged her into a chamber at McCabe keep.”
“His desires are unnatural, and he cares not who he hurts. He thinks only of himself and his pleasure. I would kill him for what he did to Keeley alone.”
“If he ever touches you again, whether in anger or with lust, I’ll feed his carcass to the vultures.”
“ ’Tis when you’re not near that I worry,” she said quietly.
“Aye, I know it, lass, and as much as it pains me to admit, you have a solid argument for why I should allow you to continue with your training. ’Tis the truth I gifted Mairin with a dagger so she would have means to protect herself. It only stands to reason I’d afford my wife the same opportunity and the skills to do so.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. “It means much that you support me in this.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” he warned. “I’ll not be easy on you just because you’re a lass. If you are to protect yourself, then you’ll have to learn to best a man twice your size and with twice your strength.”
She nodded but he continued on.
“I’m a brutal taskmaster and I’ll work you long and hard until you’re ready to cry mercy. I’ll expect the same from you that I expect from my men.”
“Aye, I understand,” she said. “Now hush and let me thank you properly, husband.”
His eyebrow went up. “Define properly.”
She smiled and wrapped her arms around his strong body. “I don’t think you’ll issue any complaints.”
“Get up and try it again, Rionna.”
Rionna staggered to her feet and rubbed her poor abused bottom. Her arm felt near to falling off. She’d long since lost feeling in her hand. She was so weary that her eyes crossed, and still, her husband pressed on.
There was no impatience in his command. He had to be the most patient man she’d ever come across. Even Hugh, when he’d instructed her, had often thrown up his hands and stomped away, grumbling about the impossibility of teaching a lass to fight.
But she’d shown him. Just like she’d shown all her father’s men who’d mocked her early efforts. And she’d show her husband, who seemed determined to see how many times he could knock her on her butt.
The tip of her sword nearly dragged on the ground as she stepped forward to face Caelen again. But she was careful to prevent the blade from doing so. Caelen had already taught her a lesson about abusing her weapon.
“God’s teeth, lass, you’re making me daft,” Gannon grumbled. “Pivot this time. You weigh naught. Should be easy for a lass your size to be quicker than a man of the laird’s size. Use that quickness to your advantage.”
Sucking in painful breaths, Rionna circled warily around her husband, looking for any movement.
“Stop. Just stop a moment, Caelen.”
Caelen sighed and lowered his sword as Gannon strode forward.
“A word, my lady?”
Not trusting that this wasn’t a trick devised by Caelen to distract her, she backed slowly away, holding her sword toward Caelen the whole time. Her husband grinned.
“She’s learning, Gannon. Don’t be overharsh.”
“I just want this done with so we can go eat,” Gannon muttered.
He drew Rionna to the side. “You’re acting as though this is an exercise with set rules and parameters. Battle is anything but, lass. You circle Caelen waiting for him to make the first move and then you react. As a result you’re always on the defensive and he always has the advantage. This time, you initiate the action. Go after him and use your quickness. You’ve not his strength. ’Tis foolhardy to try and stand your ground against a man who is three times your size. Think of other ways to compensate and be quick about it. I’m starving.”
Rionna grinned. “I’ll try my best not to further inconvenience you, Gannon.”
“He’ll stay here all night. Don’t think he won’t, lass. He’ll either get the result he wants or he’ll completely wear you down. Whichever comes first. My suggestion is to give him the result he wants so we can all go indoors where it’s warmer.”
“You’re turning into an old woman.”
“You best hope he never allows me to spar with you. I’ll show you old woman. And I won’t be as merciful as he’s being.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Who says he’s being merciful? My arse would disagree that he’s shown any mercy.”
“You’re not bleeding. That’s merciful.”
Rionna shrugged and turned back to face Caelen who stood waiting, no sign of fatigue or annoyance in his eyes. He looked as though he were on a casual outing. Nothing ruffled him. She wondered if he’d ever been caught off guard in his life.
Remembering Gannon’s advice, she began to circle, just as she’d done every time before. There was truth in Gannon’s words. She was predictable by the sheer fact that she performed the same ritual every time and waited for Caelen to strike.
Digging deep to find the last of her flagging strength, she raised her sword, let out a yell to rival any warrior, and charged.
Caelen grinned then let out a whoop of his own as their swords met. The clash could be heard all over the courtyard. Invigorated, Rionna thrust, parried, and kept driving him back, using her quickness and the fact that she swung a much lighter sword keep him from launching a counterattack.
Aye, he was on the defensive now. Just where she wanted him until he provided an opening.
Despite the frigid air, sweat poured from her brow. Her jaw ached from her clenched teeth and her eyes were narrowed in intense concentration.
Caelen swung his sword but she turned and thrust out her blade to block. The force drove her to one knee and before she could recover, with a flick of his wrist, he knocked the sword from her hand.
“Better, wife. But not good enough.”
Deciding she’d had enough of that smug superiority, she ducked low and launched herself at him. She lined up her shoulder and hit him right below the waist.
He let out a string of curses that blistered her ears. Then he slipped to his knees, his hand cupping his cods. His sword fell from his other hand and landed in the snow.
Rionna stumbled back, retrieved her sword, and then put the tip to his neck. “Do you yield?”
“Hell yes, I yield or you’ll likely slice off what’s left of my cods.”
The strain in his voice and the pain creasing his forehead might have ordinarily concerned her, but then she remembered the hours of hell he’d just put her through and all sympathy disappeared.
Gannon stepped forward, wheezing with laughter. Caelen sent him a dark scowl.
“Shut the hell up, Gannon.”
Gannon let out another guffaw and then pounded Rionna on the back, nearly knocking her to the ground. “And that, my lady, is how you fell a warrior.”
“Did you tell her to rearrange my balls?” Caelen demanded.
“Nay. I only told her to go on the offensive. I’d say she thinks well on her feet.”
“Sweet Jesu,” Caelen said as he struggled to his feet. “I was rather fond of that portion of my anatomy, wife.”
Rionna grinned cheekily and then leaned close to Caelen so Gannon wouldn’t overhear. “So was I. I do hope there’s no permanent damage.”
“Disrespectful baggage,” Caelen complained. “ ’Tis a situation I’ll remedy later.”
Then he touched her cheek where one fading bruise still smudged her skin. “Do your injuries still pain you? Did you overreach today with your training?”
“Nay,” she whispered. “ ’Tis naught but a twinge now and then. ’Tis been a fortnight and I can see near to perfect from my eye again.”
“Laird! A messenger approaches the gates!”
Caelen shoved her against Gannon and picked up his sword from the snow. “Take her inside at once and alert the rest of the men.”
Knowing this wasn’t the time to protest, Rionna allowed Gannon to hustle her inside the keep. He relinquished her in the hall next to the fire and then he shouted orders that were echoed throughout the keep.
“My lady, what is about?” Sarah asked as she hurried into the hall.
“I know not, Sarah. A messenger approaches our gate. We’ll know when the laird tells us what is happening.”
“Sit then and let me bring you hot broth. You tremble with cold and your clothing is wet through. Warm yourself by the fire before you catch your death of cold.”
Rionna looked down at her bedraggled clothing and shook her head ruefully. She’d put in a hard day’s work. She hadn’t even registered the dampness spreading over her clothing, but now that Sarah had mentioned it, Rionna could feel the chill wrought by the wet material clinging to her body.
She moved closer to the fire and stretched out her hands as the keep buzzed with activity around her. She sighed as some of the heat thawed her fingertips and warmth traveled up her arms.
She turned when she heard her husband’s footsteps. How quickly she’d become attuned to him. She knew even with her back turned that he’d entered the room.
“Is aught amiss?” she asked.
“Nay. ’Twas a McCabe man bearing a message from my brother. He is to arrive soon and requested shelter. He travels to Neamh Álainn with Mairin, Crispen, and Isabel.”
“In this weather?”
It shocked Rionna that Ewan would chance traveling in such conditions when Isabel was so young.
“He fears waiting longer. I sent him word of your attack and the message they delivered. He wants them safely ensconced at Neamh Álainn where he can avail himself of the contingent of soldiers who have guarded the holding since Alexander’s death.”
“I would excuse myself to see to their arrival,” Rionna murmured.
Caelen nodded then turned to Gannon. The two men strode from the hall, deep in conversation. Rionna took a deep breath and tried to recall the few lessons that Sarah had imparted. She instructed the women to ready food and drink. Thank God, Caelen had been successful in his hunt. Now they wouldn’t shame Caelen in front of his kin by setting an inferior table.
She set several of the women to cleaning the hall. The fire was built up and the furs shoved aside to usher in cleaner, sweet-smelling air.
Content that the women knew their tasks and would perform them quickly, Rionna hurried up the stairs to her chamber to change her clothing.
She wet cloths in the washbasin and wiped the sweat and dirt from her face and body. She shivered as chill bumps dotted her damp flesh and she hurried to pull on a gown from her wardrobe. It was the first opportunity she’d had to wear one of the dresses Sarah and the other women had altered for her and she was well satisfied with the result.
Caelen would find no fault with her appearance. She looked every bit the lady of the keep. He had made concessions—important concessions—for her, and she felt compelled to do the same for him.
She sat by the fire and brushed out her hair until it sparkled and shone like liquid gold. Then she plaited the long tresses and used a leather tie to secure the end.
Satisfied that she looked presentable, she rose and hurried back down to oversee the preparations.
The hall was busy as the tables and floors were hurriedly cleaned. Just airing the room out had made a remarkable difference.
“Venison stew is being warmed and we have several loaves of bread leftover from the noon meal. We even have a bit of cheese left that I put back for just such an occasion,” Sarah told Rionna.
“And ale? Have we a sufficient amount for our guests? Have one of the men melt some snow for fresh water.”