Symon woke slowly to the sound of a steady rain dripping off thatch, the earthy smell of peat smoke, and the hard, cold stone beneath him.
His head throbbed, and every muscle complained of hard use. He opened his eyes slowly and looked about him. Memory rushed in, crowding his aching head with images of a bedraggled lass. A lass who was either daft or foolishly brave. Another memory presented itself, one of ease and balance and a clearing of the cloud afflicting his mind, relief for his suffering body. Aye, he remembered the lass who had stilled the ravages of the madness for a time.
Symon rose, cursing his unsteady legs. The need to touch her again, to feel the clarity and brightness she had caused, had him groping for the door latch. Cloud-softened light stabbed his eyes, increasing the hammer blows inside his skull. He paused, long enough to let his eyes adjust and his legs prove their ability to hold him upright.
At last he raised the latch just as the lass opened the door, brushing dirt from the skirt of her grimy gown. She looked up, saw him, and stopped.
“Good day to you,” Symon said.
Elena nodded. Symon took the chance to really look at her here in the light of day. Her hair was flame colored. Not the color of a roaring fire, but the color of glowing embers, shifting and changing in the morning light from deep auburn to glossy brown to burnished gold.
The urge to drag her to him shook him in its intensity, nearly overwhelming his hold on reason. He fought it, disgusted with his own weakness. He was chief of Clan Lachlan, a warrior, born and trained to lead his people. He should be the one providing for others. He should not be some weak-kneed fool looking to this lass for help.
Yet he had little choice.
Purple-green marks marred her pale skin, telling of someone’s hard use. Anger surged in him, tempered with an unusual softness. No one should treat a woman so.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked, needing to break the tension building in the silence. She nodded. Symon looked past the bruises. He was not so ill he did not appreciate her long limbs and narrow build. He could even appreciate the stubborn set of her chin, and the flash of determination that came and went in her eyes. He held his hand out for her to take, but she did not touch him.
She started to back into the dark confines of the cottage, then changed her direction and edged along the rough wall a few steps. Symon moved with her, until she bumped into a stump left there.
“Take my hand,” he said, trying to keep the eagerness out of his voice. He needed her to touch him. He needed her to prove his suspicions; to feed his hopes.
The lass looked at him. “I don’t wish to take your hand,” she said, watching him, wariness etched round her eyes.
The pounding in Symon’s head increased as he fought to keep his voice level and his manner mild. He fought to keep from grabbing her, testing her effect upon him, questioning her true purpose here. He stared into her eyes, commanding her with every thought to take his hand, prove him right. Save his life.
At last she put her hand in his, lightly, barely touching, as if she were afraid to press her skin to his.
Nothing – save the continued hammers inside his skull. No peace, no calm, no ease washing over him, not even the warmth he remembered, for her hands were icy. He had wanted so much more. A tiny hope-harboring part of him he’d thought long dead was disappointed. Abruptly he turned toward the byre, pulling her along behind him.
“Release me, Devil!”
Symon winced at the familiar epithet that sounded more harsh from her lips than from all the others who had named him so. She hauled back on his hand, nearly upsetting his tenuous balance.
“Where are you taking me? I’ll not be dragged along like some animal.” She tried to pull her hand free of his grip. “I don’t belong to you.”
Symon stared at her, then released her abruptly.
“Lass.” Auld Morag stood in the doorway, a funny sort of look on her face. “Get your washing up done. I’ve a fine fat rabbit to help break your fast.” She glanced at Symon and cackled, raising the hairs at the back of his neck. “Do not worry over Symon’s scowling face. His head is pounding and his mouth’s like sand. You know aught of headache cures, do you not?”
Elena’s eyes were wide, and Symon could see the rapid rise and fall of her breathing. She was afraid. Auld Morag was a bit off-putting, but surely she had not frightened the lass so much last night.
“I have willow,” Auld Morag continued as if Elena had answered her. “Make him a tea to ease his pain. ‘Twill benefit us both if we cease the drumming in his head.”
The lass said nothing, but shook free of his grasp and made to pass by him.
Symon spun about to follow her and immediately regretted the quick movement. He grabbed her arm to steady himself and closed his eyes for a moment. He could have sworn he felt her reach out and sooth his brow with cool fingers against his sweat-sheened skin, easing his head. But when he opened his eyes the sensation vanished. She had not moved.