The wren fluttered in a nearby holly tree, fussing at her now, as if to chide her for lingering in its territory. Jeanette looked about her to get her bearings and realized that she was very near the one place that had always been peaceful, had always reinforced her sense of calm — the sacred wellspring where she used to watch her mother make offerings and prayers to the power of the Targe. Tears she refused to shed clogged her throat. Visiting the wellspring would not be the same without her mum, but at least she might feel closer to her there and might be able to draw some small comfort from that.
She quickened her pace up the rocky trail and soon made it to the top of the path where it turned left around the shoulder of the ben. She stepped onto an almost imperceptible track to the right that she knew wrapped around a large moss covered stone outcropping. From there it ran a hundred feet or more to the shallow cave that sheltered the wellspring where crystal clear water poured forth from a crack in the mountain, splashing into an icy pool before it ran down the benside to the loch.
Anticipation had her rushing down the track even faster than she had climbed the ben. She came round the last curve, hopped over the water that escaped down the ben, and skidded to a stop in the small cleared area just outside the cave.
It took a moment for her to understand what she saw there.
A man knelt in profile next to the pool of water. A shaft of sunshine cut through the shadows turning his bare torso golden, and picking out strands of almost white-blond hair on his head. He stopped, just as he was about to pour water over his right arm, and looked over his shoulder at her. He smiled and it was dazzling.
Jeanette blinked, and blinked again, as she started considering what she should do. Here was a stranger. Should she run or stand her ground? She slowly let her hand settle over her sgian dhu, her small knife.
“Are you mute, then, lass?”
His voice, deep and laced with humor, shocked her out of her thoughts. She couldn’t help but watch as he reached for the tunic laying by his feet, and pulled it over his sun-kissed skin before rising and facing her, grinning at her now. His shirt stuck to his wet skin, drawing her attention to his chest and rippled stomach, drawing her eye—
She gasped and snapped her gaze back up to meet his. He didn’t look English with his shoulder-length dark blond hair, braided at the temples, and his well faded plaid that he wore with ease. But neither had Nicholas, their new chief, looked English when first he came among them. Yet, somehow, Jeanette had always known Nicholas was an honorable man and that had proved true. She couldn’t say exactly why, but she had the same sense about this man.
And then she remembered what her mum had always told her: “You are a fine judge of character, my sweet Jeanette. I do not understand how, but you always seem to ken the truth of someone when first you meet.” The memory was both sweet and melancholy.
“Lass?” he asked, his grin even wider now, lending a twinkle to his green and brown hazel eyes.
Instinct warred with recent experience and instinct won out. He might be an honorable man, but that did not mean she trusted him. Not yet.
“What are you doing here?” she finally snapped, setting her fists on her hips. She would find no comfort here in the company of a stranger and she wanted him gone. “Who are you?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he said.
“Nay, you could not. This is my family’s land and you do not belong here. I ask again, who are you?”
The man folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head at her, his grin firmly in place as if he thought it disarming. Which it was.
Jeanette notched her chin up and waited for him to answer her questions. He was the interloper here. He was the one shattering the serenity of the place with his skin and his smile and his eyes.
“I am Malcolm MacKenzie,” he said finally.
She nodded. “Where is your home?”
“In the north, west of Inverness. Now who are you, and whose land is this?”
“Come away from the pool.” She desperately wanted him away from her mother’s place, and motioned for him to join her outside the sheltering rock, but as he passed her the almost transparent damp linen of his tunic revealed a large festering wound on his upper right arm. She grabbed his arm at the elbow, stopping him. “What happened?”
Malcolm looked down, a swear hissing from his lips.
“’Tis nothing,” he said, but when he went to pull away from her she held him fast, already pushing his sleeve up, exposing the long, oozing gash on his upper arm.
She could tell from the faint marks around the edges of the wound that it had been inexpertly stitched at one point. But the stitches were gone now, and yet it still oozed and there were faint red lines leading away from it.
She looked up at him. The grin had been replaced with a scowl, the twinkle no longer in his eyes.
Highlander Avenged, book II in my Guardians of the Targe trilogy, is available for pre-order now. Release date is Tuesday, June 24th, 2014!