She took a deep breath, trying to keep her feelings under control. Curiosity and sympathy struggled with an overwhelming feeling of frustration.
“You’re…all right, though. I mean—in spite of what he—did to you?”
He gave her a look of exasperation, understanding mingled with half-angry amusement.
“Not many die of it, lass. Not me. And not you.”
“Not yet.” Involuntarily, she put a hand over her belly. She stared up at him. “I guess we’ll see in six months if I die of it.”
That rattled him; she could see it. He blew out his breath and scowled at her.
“Ye’ll do fine,” he said curtly. “Ye’re wider through the hip than yon wee heifer.”
“Like your mother? Everybody says how much I’m like her. I guess she was wide through the hip, too, but it didn’t save her, did it?”
He flinched. Quick and sharp as though she’d slapped him across the face with a stinging nettle. Perversely, seeing it filled her with panic, rather than the satisfaction she’d expected.
She understood then that his promise of protection was in good part illusion. He would kill for her, yes. Or willingly die himself, she had no doubt. He would—if she let him—avenge her honor, destroy her enemies. But he could not defend her from her own child; he was as powerless to save her from that threat as if she had never found him.
“I’ll die,” she said, cold certainty filling her belly like frozen mercury. “I know I will.”
“Ye won’t!” He rounded on her fiercely, and she felt his hands bite into her upper arms. “I will not let you!”
She would have given anything to believe him. Her lips were numb and stiff, rage giving way to a cold despair.
“You can’t help,” she said. “You can’t do anything!”
“Your mother can,” he said, but sounded only half convinced. His grip slackened, and she wrenched herself free.
“No, she can’t—not without a hospital, without drugs and things. If it—if it goes wrong, all she can do is try to save the b-baby.” Despite herself, her gaze flickered to his dirk, blade gleaming cold against the straw where he had left it.
Her knees felt watery, and she sat down suddenly. He snatched up the jug and slopped cider into a cup, pushing it under her nose.
“Drink it,” he said. “Drink up, lass, you’re pale as my sark.” His hand was on the back of her head, urging her. She took a sip, but choked and drew back, waving him off. She drew a sleeve across her wet chin, wiping off the spilled cider.
“You know what’s the worst? You said it wasn’t my fault, but it is.”
“It is not!”
She flapped a hand at him, bidding him be quiet.
“You talked about cowardice; you know what it is. Well, I was a coward. I should have fought, I shouldn’t have let him…but I was scared of him. If I’d been brave enough, this wouldn’t have happened, but I wasn’t, I was scared! And now I’m even more scared,” she said, voice breaking. She took a deep breath to steady herself, bracing her hands on the straw.
“You can’t help, and neither can Mama, and I can’t do anything either. And Roger—” Her voice did crack then, and she bit her lip hard, forcing back tears.
“Brianna—a leannan…” He made a move to comfort her, but she drew back, arms folded tight across her stomach.
“I keep thinking—if I kill him, that’s something I can do. It’s the only thing I can do. If I—if I have to die, at least I’ll take him with me, and if I don’t—then maybe I can forget, if he’s dead.”
“Ye willna forget.” The words were blunt and uncompromising as a blow to the stomach. He was still holding the cup of cider. Now he tilted back his head and drank, quite deliberately.
“It doesna matter, though,” he said, setting down the cup with an air of businesslike finality. “We shall find you a husband, and once the babe’s born, ye willna have much time to fret.”
“What?” She gaped at him. “What do you mean, find me a husband?”
“You’ll need one, aye?” he said, in tones of mild surprise. “The bairn must have a father. And if ye willna tell me the name of the man who’s given ye a swollen belly, so that I might make him do his duty by ye—”
“You think I’d marry the man who did this?” Her voice cracked again, this time with astonishment.
His voice sharpened slightly.
“Well, I’m thinkin’—are ye maybe playin’ wi’ the truth a bit, lass? Perhaps it wasna rape at all; perhaps it was that ye took a mislike to the man, and ran—and made up the story later. Ye were not marked, after all. Hard to think a man could force a lass of your size, if ye were unwilling altogether.”
“You think I’m lying?”
He raised one brow in cynicism. Furious, she swung a hand at him, but he caught her by the wrist.
“Ah, now,” he said, reprovingly. “Ye’re no the first lass to make a slip and try to hide it, but—” He caught the other wrist as she struck at him, and pulled them both up sharply.
“Ye dinna need to make such a fuss,” he said. “Or is it that ye wanted the man and he threw ye over? Is that it?”
She swiveled in his grip, used her weight to swing aside, brought her knee up hard. He turned only slightly, and her knee collided with his thigh, not the vulnerable flesh between his legs she had been aiming for.
The blow must have bruised him, but didn’t lessen his grip on her wrists in the least. She twisted, kicking, cursing her skirts. She hit his shin dead-on at least twice, but he only chuckled, as though finding her struggles funny.
“Is that all ye can do, lassie?” He broke his grip then, but only to shift both her wrists to one hand. The other prodded her playfully in the ribs.
“There was a man
In Muir of Skene,
He had dirks
And I had none;
But I fell on him
With my thumbs,
And wot you how,
I dirkit him,
With each repetition, he dug a thumb hard between her ribs.
“You f**king bastard!” she screamed. She braced her feet and yanked down on his arm as hard as she could, bringing it into biting range. She lunged at his wrist, but before she could sink her teeth in his flesh, she found herself jerked off her feet and whirled through the air.
She ended hard on her knees, one arm twisted up behind her back so tightly that her shoulder joint cracked. The strain on her elbow hurt; she writhed, trying to turn into the hold, but couldn’t budge. An arm like an iron bar clamped across her shoulders, forcing her head down. And farther down.
Her chin drove into her chest; she couldn’t breathe. And still he forced her head down. Her knees slid apart, her thighs forced wide by the downward pressure.
“Stop!” she grunted. It hurt to force sound through her constricted windpipe. “Gd’s sk, stp!”
The relentless pressure paused, but did not ease. She could feel him there behind her, an inexorable, inexplicable force. She reached back with her free hand, groping for something to claw, something to hit or bend, but there was nothing.
“I could break your neck,” he said, very quietly. The weight of his arm left her shoulders, though the twisted arm still held her bent forward, hair loose and tumbled, nearly touching the floor. A hand settled on her neck. She could feel thumb and index fingers on either side, pressing lightly on her arteries. He squeezed, and black spots danced before her eyes.
“I could kill you, so.”
The hand left her neck, and touched her, deliberately, knee and shoulder, cheek and chin, emphasizing her helplessness. She jerked her head away, not letting him touch the wetness, not wanting him to feel her tears of rage. Then the hand pressed sudden and brutal on the small of her back. She made a small, choked sound and arched her back to keep her arm from breaking, thrusting out her h*ps backward, legs spread to keep her balance.
“I could use ye as I would,” he said, and there was a coldness in his voice. “Could you stop me, Brianna?”
She felt as though she would suffocate with rage and shame.
“Answer me.” The hand took her by the neck again, and squeezed.
She was free. So suddenly released, she pitched forward onto her face, barely getting one hand down in time to save herself.
She lay on the straw, panting and sobbing. There was a loud whuffle near her head—Magdalen, roused by the noise, leaning out of her stall to investigate. Slowly, painfully, she raised herself to a sitting position.
He was standing over her, arms folded.
“Damn you!” she gasped. She slammed a hand down in the hay. “God, I want to kill you!”
He stood quite still, looking down at her.
“Aye,” he said quietly. “But ye can’t, can you?”
She stared up at him, not understanding. His eyes were intent on hers, not angry, not mocking. Waiting.
“You can’t,” he repeated, with emphasis.
And then realization came, flooding down her aching arms to her bruised fists.
“Oh, God,” she said. “No. I can’t. I couldn’t. Even if I’d fought him…I couldn’t.”
Quite suddenly she began to cry, the knots inside her slipping loose, the weights shifting, lifting, as a blessed relief spread through her body. It hadn’t been her fault. If she had fought with all her strength—as she had fought just now—
“Couldn’t,” she said, and swallowed hard, gasping for air. “I couldn’t have stopped him. I kept thinking, if only I’d fought harder…but it wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t have stopped him.”
A hand touched her face, big and very gentle.
“You’re a fine, braw lassie,” he whispered. “But a lassie, nonetheless. Would ye fret your heart out and think yourself a coward because ye couldna fight off a lion wi’ your bare hands? It’s the same. Dinna be daft, now.”
She wiped the back of her hand under her nose, and sniffed deeply.
He put a hand under her elbow and helped her up, his strength no longer either threat or mockery, but unutterable comfort. Her knees stung, where she had scraped them on the ground. Her legs wobbled, but she made it to the haypile, where he let her sit down.
“You could just have told me, you know,” she said. “That it wasn’t my fault.”
He smiled faintly.
“I did. Ye couldna believe me, though, unless ye knew for yourself.”
“No. I guess not.” A profound but peaceful weariness had settled on her like a blanket. This time she had no urge to tear it off.
She watched, feeling too limp to move, as he wetted a cloth from the trough and wiped her face, straightened her twisted skirts, and poured out a drink for her.
When he handed her the freshly filled cup of cider, though, she laid a hand on his arm. Bone and muscle were solid, warm under her hand.
“You could have fought back. But you didn’t.”
He laid a big hand over hers, squeezed and let it go.