WADING THROUGH THE night’s drifts in the Great Wood slowed Rowan Thomas’s gait to a shivering shuffle. Winter had white-washed the Scottish Highlands so thoroughly the world resembled an over-filled snow globe. Sunlight flung around blinding, glittery light as it ricocheted off the ice crystals furring every branch, rock and bush. Appreciating all the frosty beauty might have been easier if the biting cold hadn’t already numbed Rowan’s nose and ears.
Dumping the two heavy, steaming buckets she carried also might have allowed her to move faster. But the fourteenth century didn’t provide heat or indoor plumbing. When Rowan wanted to bathe with something other than semi-frozen basin water she had to pay a visit to Dun Mor’s subterranean thermal spring. Because she liked being clean, lugging her own bath water to the stables where she now lived and worked had become a daily chore.
“I had to be born a girl,” Rowan muttered as she stepped over a mound of frozen rocks. “Men never care if they’re dirty or smelly. It’s proof of their manliness. Regular clan guys probably come home every night covered with mud and blood and say to the wife, ‘Look at me, I worked hard today slaughtering the laird’s enemies with my trusty long sword. Now get me a mead.’”
The toe of her boot hit a buried root, and she nearly fell face-first into a drift. As she jerked back water sloshed out of her buckets and soaked her trousers.
“Great.” She set down the buckets to survey the sopping mess she’d made of herself. “I should forget the wash and see if there’s anyone the chieftain wants butchered.”
A tall, lean figure blocked out the sun.
“Or maybe not,” Rowan said as she hefted the half-empty buckets and went around Taran Skaraven.
Ever since the clan’s horse master had returned from the McAra stronghold she hadn’t spoken a single word to him. She’d begged him to let her go along with the clan, and help save her sister, but he’d forced her to stay behind. He wasn’t speaking to her either, but he hardly spoke to her anyway. She didn’t care. She could deal with the tension between them, which had grown so huge it made the air almost seethe with everything they weren’t saying to each other.
Taran might be the most mysterious, closed-mouthed, hard-headed Skaraven in the bunch, but Rowan had her own secret now.
Inside the stables the warm, earthy scent of hay, leather and horses wrapped around Rowan like the hug she would never get from its master. She headed for the back room where they washed up, determined to get the one thing she wanted for herself done. She put down the buckets by the threshold and took off her wet boots and the trews she’d stolen from Taran’s garment trunk. Tossing the dripping trousers over her shoulder, she emptied one bucket into the other. As she carried the full one inside, she kicked the door shut behind her.
“Rowan.” The shadows of Taran’s boots appeared under the door’s bottom gap. “Speak to me.”
She took a moment to gloat over the fact that he’d caved in first. Then the weird need to do whatever he asked kicked in, and she had to talk.
“What do you want me to say?” she asked as she stripped naked, and took down a shallow tub from its shelf. “It’s freezing outside? Did you see all the new snow that fell last night? Sorry about getting your pants wet? Please, be more specific.”
The door creaked as if Taran were leaning against it. “I ken how trying ’tis been for you, my lady.”
“Wow, you do?” Rowan reached for a clean rag to wet and smear the slimy brown stuff that the clan used as soap. “So, you ken what it is to be snatched from the twenty-first century by crazy druids and their monsters? Or what it’s like to be dragged back to Medieval Fun World here, and be starved and beaten for weeks? Say, did your sister get you an extra-special whipping that made you wish you were dead? That would be before she decided she didn’t need you anymore, by the way.”
Taran didn’t reply.
“Don’t get me wrong. There have been a few perks.” Rowan began scrubbing herself with the cloth. “Like how we got rescued by the Skaraven. Well, by Cade, but he’s part of the clan, right? All for one, one for all. No, that was those French guys. Forget that. Anyway, one night on the run there I even kept us from starving by stealing chestnuts from a squirrel stash. The survival skills I’ve learned are just awesome. Have to admit, I never stole food from rodents while being hunted like an animal in my time.”
The door creaked again. “Rowan, please.”
“No, really, I can’t complain. So what if the other kidnapped gals keep getting enslaved by your clan’s battle spirits and then killed horribly? The Skaraven have been decent enough to fall in love with them, and raise them from the dead as immortals. Except me. I’m the big mortal pain that everyone except you avoids. You use me like cheap day labor, and I let you because, well, I don’t have anyone.” She reached for the dipper and stepped into the shallow empty tub. “Yeah, I think that about covers it. Your turn now.”
Rowan waited for him to say something as she sluiced off the soap with the dipper, saving just enough water to dump over her head for a final rinse. Only when she’d dried off did she realize that she hadn’t brought a change of clothes down from the hayloft. Wrapping herself in Taran’s red and black tartan, she shoved the door open. Looking at the horse master made her forget everything but him, so Rowan stared at her bare toes.
“Anything else you want to chat about, Boss?” she asked with forced cheer. “Or can I get dressed and ready for another fun-filled day of stable hand duty?”
He stepped closer. “You have me, my lady.”
That she did, and Rowan saw it as soon as she met his gaze. Taran had eyes so beautiful and vividly-colored it almost hurt to look into them. She’d gotten lost in all that lovely blue-green too many times. She knew better than to do this. Yet here she stood, sinking into the colors of him again, while he did the same.
Since the moment they’d met they had been completely obsessed with each other, and Rowan hadn’t a clue as to why.
Without a doubt Taran was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen in her life. She couldn’t stop from adoring the hard, handsome planes of his face, framed by hair so fair it could have been spun from sun-gilded clouds. The rest of him, all muscle and smooth skin, pulled at her like barbed hooks in her chest. The strangest part of their reciprocal fascination was how familiar it felt. She knew this man, when she’d never seen him before in her life.
Yet with seven hundred years separating their times, how could she?
Every time this happened he ripped away at her anger and disappointment and confusion until all that was left was Taran, made her universe.
And oh, God, he was reaching for her now.
“Don’t do that,” she said quickly.
Her heart fluttered in her chest like a trapped, frightened wren. Any physical contact made them forget the rest of the world, often for hours. After the first couple of times they’d whammied each other, all touching had become strictly forbidden by mutual agreement.
The reminder made the horse master drop his hand, and clench it into a fist. “’Tis unbearable at times, no’ to touch you.”
Rowan’s heart had hit rock-bottom days ago. Now it bored through the rock to go deeper. This nameless, terrifying thing between them was torturing him as much as her.
“Please,” she tried, yet again. “Let’s tell someone. There has to be a reason for it. We could talk to Ruadri, Emeline, even Brennus, but we can’t go on keeping this secret.”
He shook his head. “I cannae yet.”
Rowan knew that was all the explanation she’d get. “Then why keep me? You don’t need me here.” Every member of the clan took care of their own mount and stall. She did mostly busy work around the stables, and chopped firewood for the stronghold. She’d already piled so many cords in the storage sheds there wasn’t room for any more. “Let me move back to the stronghold. I’ll find something to do for Brennus. Every castle needs a good carpenter.”
Taran’s jaw tightened. “’Tis what you wish, to leave me?”
Now Rowan wanted to throw up, just for suggesting it. “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t fix this. I don’t even know what this is. You make me angry all the time, and I say horrible things to you. I know I’m hurting you, and that’s the last thing I want, but I can’t stop myself.”
“I dinnae care.” He dragged in a deep breath. “Stay.”
“Fine.” She closed her eyes, the only thing that would clear her head of him, and when she opened them again he was halfway across the stables.
Rowan climbed up to the hayloft, and raided his trunk. Because he was so big, she had to roll up the trousers and the sleeves and and tuck in the long shirts. But otherwise, every garment seemed as though she might have chosen them herself.
Once she’d gotten dressed and pulled on her spare pair of boots she braided back her damp hair and covered it with a bandana. Unable to resist, she glanced over the edge of the loft. Taran had saddled Gael, the big white stallion he liked to ride. The horse stood watching her with his big dark eyes. It would have creeped her out except for one thing: the damn stallion looked almost sorry for her.
“Oh, bite me,” Rowan muttered, and sat down on a hay bale to wait for Taran to ride off.
* * *
Guiding Geal out of the stables cleared Taran’s head enough that he could think of something other than Rowan Thomas. He’d been riding every day in pursuit of the same clarity, but leaving her resolved nothing. The moment he returned he would lose whatever detachment and distance he’d gained from her. As soon as he saw or heard or even smelled the dark lass, all of his senses focused on her. Rowan had become everything to him.
Yet he truly knew nothing of her.
Taran had watched his chieftain and clan brothers as they gave their hearts to their mates. Love seemed woven from mutual bonds of desire and affection. What he felt for Rowan had no such twining. The other Skaravens’ battle spirits had marked their women as chosen, while his own centaur spirit seemed completely indifferent to his dark lass.
The other men had dreamt of their mates before being awakened to immortality, and had spoken of visions of the women being taken by the famhairean from the future. Taran had never once dreamt or envisioned Rowan at any time in his mortal or immortal existence. Yet the moment he’d found her sleeping in his hayloft, he’d recognized her. He knew in his bones that he had been watching for her, waiting for her to come to him. Until she’d arrived he hadn’t been aware of it.
He wished he loved Rowan, for it would give a name to his need for her. When he looked upon her dark beauty, no tender thoughts filled his head. Indeed, he knew only one savage surety, which he had no right to feel at all.
She belongs to me. No other.
As Gael navigated his way through the drifts Taran summoned his battle spirit, and let his mind open to the stallion. Horses didn’t think in words and concepts like humans, but in images and sensory memories. To Gael the morning was snow and light, the path they rode, the trails through the forest concealed around them and yet remembered. A flash of galloping through a winter day like this while being trained by the McAra flickered through Taran’s mind. Another, more intense memory of a squealing, high-tailed mare releasing her water in a smaller pasture followed.
“’Tis no’ about that,” he muttered to his mount.
The stallion shook his head as if to disagree. To an alpha horse like Gael, females separated from the herd had but one purpose—breeding—so he didn’t comprehend his master’s dilemma. The sound of another rider approaching them brought the stallion to full alertness. Taran knew from the scent that it was Liath, the muscular gray stallion belonging to Cadeyrn, the Skaraven war master.
“Fair morning, Brother,” Cadeyrn said as he rode up alongside him, his golden eyes studying him with the customary intensity of his owl battle spirit. “If you mean to ride every morn I should put you on patrol duty.”
“Do as you wish,” Taran replied and felt the two stallions give each other the grudgingly tolerant greetings of well-trained alphas through ear movements and chuffed breaths. He should do the same with Cade. “What do you outside this early?”
The war master’s mouth twisted as he reached under his tartan and produced a sack overflowing with bright orange berries.
“Lily asked me to gather these for her before the birds have them all.”
“Rowan berries,” Taran said, nearly tripping on the words. He ought to snatch the fruits from Cadeyrn’s hand and crush them. “Your lady’s mistaken if she means to cook with them. They’re more bitter than vetch.” As was his dark lass of the same name.
“Aye, and so I told her, but she swears stuffed in venison they make a haunch worthy of the Gods.” The war master replaced the sack and glanced back along the path to the stables. “So, has your own prickly lady yet lost her sourness for you?”
“I’ve no claim on Rowan,” Taran said and tightened his grip on Gael’s reins, causing the stallion to go still. “She’s good with the mounts, and a fine hand with an axe. But ’tis all she does or shall do for me. Should you forget, she’s a facking druidess.”
Cadeyrn’s smile faded. “Aye, and we’ve four more in the stronghold.”
Taran felt instantly ashamed of his outburst. “Forgive me. I meant no disrespect toward your Lily or the others. They’ve proven their worth over and again.”
“But no’ Rowan, even while she toils each day for you without relief.” Before he could reply the war master held up his hand. “’Tis no’ my concern what stone she’s lodged under your heel. You say naught, ’tis enough for me. Only ken she’s yet mortal, and beneath that unruly temper, troubled deep.”
“You’ve felt it, then,” Taran said, his voice less tight. As Cade nodded, Taran let Gael’s reins go slack in his fist. “I reckoned the work would help her gain some peace.” And give him time to fathom what she had done to him.
The war master grunted. “She’s cut enough firewood to last the clan three winters, and yet casts dark looks at anyone who dares approach her. She’s refused to speak to her sister, Perrin, since she mated with Kanyth. She stirs Lily’s temper, so I put much effort in keeping their paths apart. Brennus himself gives her a wide berth, and our chieftain fears no one.”
“’Tis but her shield, the anger, to hold off new hurts.” Taran dragged his hand through his hair. “She’s as a mare beaten an inch from death, Cade, and then set free. All she wishes to do is run.”
“’Tis no creature more dangerous than one so wounded,” Cadeyrn told him. “You may gentle her yet, but take care, Brother. Behind that fiery temper I’ll wager she’s an unsheathed blade, held at ready.”