“ ’Tis over, Ewan,” he said quietly as they hobbled down the hallway. “After eight years, ’tis over. Cameron is dead and neither of us dealt the killing blow.”
“Aye,” Ewan murmured. “Our father can rest now. He has been avenged.”
“Nay,” Caelen said swiftly. “ ’Tis not about vengeance. ’Tis about what is honorable and just. Cameron acted without honor. He died without honor. ’Tis enough.”
Ewan’s brow furrowed as he cast a sideways glance at his brother. “I owe your wife a debt I can never repay. She not only saved your life, but she killed a man who has caused much grief to my wife and who threatened my daughter.”
“ ’Twould seem there are many of us indebted to my wife,” Caelen said dryly.
Ewan knocked at the chamber door and Caelen pushed impatiently in before the summons was issued. His heart nearly stopped when he saw Rionna sprawled facedown on the bed, face turned to the side and eyes closed.
Gannon immediately put up a hand. “She passed out awhile ago, but she’s breathing. The pain became too much for her.”
“Can’t we give her a potion? Is there a healer in this clan?” Caelen demanded. “I’ll not have her suffer unnecessarily.”
“Be at ease,” Alaric said. “You don’t want to frighten Rionna if she awakens. We’ve convinced her ’tis a minor wound and nothing to worry over. She fears more for you than for herself and ’tis better that way. ’Twill give her something to fight for.”
Caelen went to her bedside, battling pain and the mugginess of fever. His head swam and it felt as though he walked through a bog, but he was determined that he’d remain by her side.
“The dagger is deep, Ewan.”
“Aye. It’s going to bleed more freely once the blade is out. I’ll have to work fast to stop it and stitch the wound.”
“She’s a fighter,” Gannon said gruffly. “This is naught for her.”
Caelen had never seen his commander so pale. He hovered over Rionna, clenching and unclenching his fists as if he had no idea what to do.
“Has there been other bleeding?” Caelen asked fearfully. “She carries a babe.”
Alaric shook his head. “None that I’ve been able to see. She’s complained of no pain in her stomach. Just in her back.”
“Get on the bed with her before you fall over,” Ewan said crossly. “Get to one side so that when you finally pass out, you won’t be in the way.”
A knock sounded at the door and Gannon and Alaric both drew their swords. Gannon hurried to answer, opening it just a crack. Then he opened it wider to admit a gray-haired woman who looked to be as old as Methuselah.
She looked extremely agitated and she wrung her hands in front of her.
“Begging your pardon, Laird McCabe, but I was told you had need of a healer.”
Ewan gazed sharply at the old woman. “Have you skill?”
The woman drew herself up and pinned Ewan with a beady stare. “I was versed in the healing arts long afore you were born, laddie.”
“I need a drought for pain and a poultice to rub on the wound after it’s been stitched.”
She nodded. “Aye, I have those things. Would you be needing a steady hand to do the stitching? I’m old, aye, but my hand hasn’t wavered in all my sixty years.”
“Nay,” Caelen interjected. He turned to Ewan. “You do it. I trust you.”
Ewan nodded then gestured toward the older woman. “Fetch the items I requested.”
She nodded and backed from the room.
“I’ll need help to pull the dagger from her back,” Ewan said with a grimace. “ ’Twill have to be done quickly, and then we have to stop the bleeding. Caelen, lie down. If she awakens, it will soothe her to have you near.”
Caelen crawled onto the bed and collapsed next to her, as his strength finally gave out. His smoothed his hand over the back of her head, stroking her hair that was matted with blood at the ends.
“When ’tis done, I’ll bathe you as you once bathed me,” he murmured close to her ear. “We’ll sit by the fire and I’ll brush your hair and then feed you by my hand. I’ll read you all the thoughts I’ve written down since the day I first laid eyes on you. ’Tis the truth I wanted you even then. Even when you belonged to my brother.”
He touched her cheek, trying to infuse some color. It was pale and cool.
“Build up the fire,” he said to Gannon. “I don’t want her to be cold. I’d have her as comfortable as possible.”
“Place your hands on either side of the dagger,” Ewan instructed Alaric. “I want you to push down when I pull. As soon as the dagger is free, press your hands firmly over the wound.”
Alaric nodded and Caelen moved in close until his lips brushed her temple.
“Be brave, lass,” he whispered. “As brave as you’ve been through everything else. I’m here. I’ll not leave you.”
Ewan nodded at Alaric and then took hold of the dagger and pulled. Rionna jerked. Her eyes flew open, panic flaring in their depths. She cried out and began to struggle.
The knife came free, bathed in blood, and Alaric pressed down on the wound as Rionna writhed beneath him.
“Shh, Rionna, ’tis I, Caelen. Be at ease, lass. We’re helping you. ’Tis Ewan my brother who has pulled the dagger from your back.”
Ewan cut impatiently at her tunic until her back was bare. Caelen closed his eyes as he saw blood stream from underneath Alaric’s palms.
Rionna whimpered as Alaric pressed harder, and Caelen reached for her hand.
Her fingers bit into his palm, her nails digging deep. He didn’t mind the pain for if it helped her to bear hers, he’d do anything.
“ ’Tis like fire,” Rionna gasped. “Oh God, it burns.”
“I know it, lass. It will be over soon. I swear it. Breathe for me. Look at me. Only at me and put this from your mind.”
Her gaze found his, her eyes wide and panicked.
“He’s going to stitch the wound,” Caelen said calmly. “I want you to focus on me. Push the pain from your mind and imagine holding our bairn.”
Some of the wildness eased from her eyes and soft joy replaced the pain.
The next hour was a test of Caelen’s endurance. Weakened from his own injuries, fevered, and in a great deal of pain himself, he coaxed Rionna through every stitch that Ewan set. When her face went gray with pain, he kissed her and talked of their child. When she was near to passing out, he stroked her cheek and told her he loved her.
By the time Ewan was done with the last of it, Caelen was barely conscious himself.
Ewan stepped back from the bed and wiped his brow with the back of his arm. “ ’Tis done, Caelen. ’Tis in God’s hands now.”
Caelen didn’t respond.
Ewan bent over the bed to see that his brother had finally succumbed to unconsciousness. He glanced up at Alaric and Gannon.
“I’m worried for them both. They both have grievous wounds and have lost a lot of blood. But ’tis Caelen’s that went the longest without care and they’d already began to fester. He has a fever already.”
“What do we do?” Gannon asked quietly.
“We bear them back home and pray that God is merciful.”
Rionna woke, awash in pain. Her entire body felt stretched and tight as if her skin fit too snugly. Her lips were dry and cracked and she’d sell her soul for just a taste of water.
“Ah, there you are,” a sweet voice soothed.
“Oh God, I’ve died, haven’t I?” Rionna said in disgust.
There was a light chuckle. “Now why would you think that?”
“Because you have the voice of an angel.”
Rionna pried open one eye, never imagining it could hurt so much to do something so insignificant.
“Keeley,” she breathed. “You’re here.” Then she frowned because she wasn’t sure where here was. She looked around to see that she was in her old chamber at McDonald keep.
“Aye, I’m here. Would I be anywhere else when those I love are in need of my skills?”
Keeley eased onto the bed beside Rionna, holding a goblet of water. “Would you like a drink?”
“More than I want to breathe.”
Keeley laughed again. “Not dramatic, are you?”
Rionna sucked thirstily at the liquid, ignoring the pain that her movement caused. When she was done, she eased back down onto the pillow and closed her eyes to ward off the spasm of discomfort that gripped her.
“Why am I in here?” she asked. She didn’t want to read too much into why she wasn’t in Caelen’s chamber—the chamber they’d shared ever since Caelen had fetched her from this very room.
Keeley placed a cool hand on Rionna’s forehead and rubbed soothingly.
“I wanted you in a room with no windows. You burned with fever for so many days. The draft from the windows was too cold and yet I didn’t want a fire to keep you overwarm.”
“That made no sense to me,” Rionna said tiredly.
Keeley smiled down at her as Rionna opened her eyes again.
“Where is Caelen?” she asked, voicing the question that had burned in her mind from the moment she woke up.
“He hasn’t yet awakened.”
Rionna struggled up, nearly fainting from the red-hot pain that lanced through her back. “How long have I lain here?” she asked hoarsely, ignoring Keeley’s attempts to make her lie back down.
“The journey back here took two days and you’ve been insensible with fever for the last seven.”
Panic gripped Rionna by the throat. It took every bit of her strength, but she pushed Keeley aside and forced herself up from the bed.
“Where is he?” she demanded, even as she staggered toward the door.
“Where is who? Rionna, stop at once. You’re too weak and you’ve still got a fever.”
She threw open the door. “Caelen,” she replied. “Where is he?”
“In his chamber, of course. Now come back. For God’s sake, you’ve naught on but your nightdress.”
Rionna warded off Keeley’s grasp and strode down the hallway and around the bend. Gannon stood outside Caelen’s door and he didn’t look at all happy to see her.
He rushed to catch her before her knees gave out. “Sweet Jesu, my lady. What are you thinking?”
Keeley caught up to Rionna just as she tried to shake off Gannon’s grasp.
“Move out of my way,” she gritted out. “I would see my husband for myself.”
Gannon’s eyes softened and he wrapped a strong arm around her waist. “If I let you inside, you have to swear you’ll return to your bed. ’Tis the truth you look like death.”
“Thanks,” Rionna grumbled. “You flatter me so.”
Keeley turned her lips in to hide the smile. “I’ll wait out here, Rionna. But I’m coming in to get you after a moment. Don’t think I won’t.”
“It might take more than a moment to convince my stubborn husband he’s not going to die,” Rionna bit out as she walked through the door.
Gannon and Keeley exchanged puzzled glances but Rionna was already gone.
Rionna barely made it to Caelen’s bed before her legs gave out. She perched herself on the edge and looked upon her husband’s face. He looked at peace. No lines carved across his forehead. He lay so still that it frightened her.
Then anger consumed her and she leaned forward so that she was close to his face and there was no chance he couldn’t hear her. She’d make him hear her, by God.
“Listen to me, husband, and listen well,” she all but shouted at him. “You’ll not die on me. Not after all I did to save your sorry hide. Is this how you show your gratitude? By dying on me after all? ’Tis a disgrace, that’s what it is.”
She framed his face in her hands and leaned farther down.
“You’ll fight, damn it. You’ll not give over this easily. God is not ready for you yet because I am not through with you. You’re going to wake up and you’re going to give me the words I’ve waited on for so long. Telling me you love me on the battlefield as we both lay dying doesn’t count. You’ll give them to me and mean them or so help me I’ll bury you in unconsecrated ground so that you never rest and you’ll be forced to dwell in this keep with me for eternity.”
To her complete surprise, his eyes opened and a smile curved his lips upward. Warmth gleamed in those beautiful green eyes as he stared up at her.
“I love you.”
Tears filled her eyes until she could no longer even see his face. Relief was so sweet and so overwhelming that she couldn’t hold herself up. He gripped her arms and lowered her to his chest as she lay exhausted over him.
“Is that what you woke me for, wife? To beat the words from me? I would have gladly given them to you except you’ve been unconscious the last days and I grew tired of saying them to a woman who couldn’t hear me.”