They rode hard to put as much distance as possible between them and the Frasers, and along game trails and creek beds to conceal their tracks as best they could. When Darach felt they were safe, he slowed Loki and shifted the unconscious woman so she sat across his lap. Her head tipped back into the crook of his arm, and he stilled when he saw her sleeping face, bruised but still lovely—like a wee dove.
Dark lashes fanned out against fair cheeks, and a dusting of freckles crossed her nose.
She looked soft, pure.
God knows that meant nothing. He knew better than most a bonny face could hide a black heart.
Slicing through the dirty gag, he hurled it to the ground. Welts had formed at the corners of her mouth, and her lips, red and plump, had cracked. After cutting her hands free, he sheathed his dagger and massaged her wrists. Her cheek was chafed from rubbing against the side of the mare, and a large bruise marred her temple.
His gut tightened with the same fury he'd felt earlier.
Lachlan rode up beside him, the skittish stallion tethered behind his mount. "If you continue to stare at her, I'll wager she'll ne'er wake. Women are contrary creatures, doona you know?"
Darach drew to a stop. "She sleeps too deeply, Brother. 'Tis unnatural. Do you think she'll be all right?" Oslow, Brodie, and Gare gathered 'round. It was the first time they'd seen the lass.
"Is she dead, do you think?" Gare asked, voice scarcely above a whisper. He was a tall, young warrior of seventeen, with the scrawny arms and legs of a lad still building up his muscle.
Oslow, Darach's older, gnarly lieutenant, cuffed Gare on the back of the head. "She's breathing, isna she? Look at the rise and fall of her chest, lad."
"I'll do no such thing. 'Tis not proper. She's a lady, I'll wager. Look at her fine clothes."
Lachlan snorted in amusement and picked up her hand, turning it over to run his fingers across her smooth palm. "I reckon you might be right, Gare. The lass hasn't seen hard labor. 'Tis smooth as a bairn's bottom."
Darach's chest tightened at the sight of her wee hand in Lachlan's. He fought the urge to snatch it back.
"She has stirred some, cried out in her sleep. I pray to God the damage isna permanent." Physically, at least. Emotionally, she could be scarred for life. His arm tightened around her, and she moaned.
"Pass me some water." Someone placed a leather flagon in his hand, and Darach wedged the opening between her lips. When he tilted the container, the water seeped down her cheek. He waited a moment and
tried again. This time she swallowed, showing straight, white teeth. Her hand came up and closed over his, helping to steady the flask.
A peculiar feeling fluttered in Darach's chest.
When she made a choking sound, he pulled the flask away. Her body convulsed as she coughed, and he sat her up to thump her on the back. Upon settling, he laid her back down in the crook of his arm.
"Christ, we doona want to drown her, Darach—or knock the lungs right out of her. Maybe you should give her to one of us to hold for a while?" Lachlan's laughing eyes told Darach his foster brother deliberately provoked him. Another time-honored tradition.
Gare jumped in. "Oh, aye. I'll hold the lass."
"You?" Brodie asked. "You canna even hold your own sword. Do you think those skinny arms will keep her safe? I'll hold the lass." Brodie was a few years older than Gare and had already filled out into a fine-looking man. He was a rogue with the lasses, and they all loved him for it. No way in h ell would he be holding her.
"Cease. Both of you," said Oslow. "If anyone other than our laird holds the lass, it will be Laird MacKay. If she be a lady, she'll not want to be held by the likes of you."
Darach glowered at Lachlan, who grinned.
Then she stirred, drawing everyone's attention. They waited as her eyelids quivered before opening. A collective gasp went up from the men, Darach included.
He couldn't help it, for the lass staring up at him had the eyes of an angel.
They dominated her sweet face—big, round, innocent. And the color—Darach couldn't get over the color. A piercing, light blue surrounded by a rim of dark blue.
A shiver of desire, followed by unease, coursed through him. He tamped down the unwelcome feeling.
"Sweet Mary," Gare whispered. "She's a faery, aye?"
All except Lachlan looked at Darach for confirmation. He cleared his throat before speaking, trying to break the spell she'd cast over him. Not a faery, but maybe a witch.
"Nay, lad," he replied, voice rough. "She's naught but a bonny maid."
"A verra bonny maid," Lachlan agreed.