The Depths of Her Soul – Rebecca Ruger

THE INTERIOR OF THE wagon was beyond anything Mari had ever known, as far as vehicles went. Not that she traveled often, or, well, ever. Save for seven years earlier, at age twelve, when she’d been sent down to her uncle in England on the back of a tanner’s cart. She’d ridden hundreds of miles, by her reckoning, listening to that tanner’s lad yapping endlessly about the unpleasant process of curing the pungent hides that had served as her seat. She could still hear the boy’s nasal voice, could still recall wondering whether walking to England, had it been presented as a means of transport, might have been more to her liking. As it was, her return trip now—home to Scotland—was as far different from the going as sugar was to salt. She had been retrieved that morning by her half-brother, Harman, and had been stuffed into this opulent conveyance. She still couldn’t believe her good fortune, to be going home finally, and to be travelling in such luxury. Had her family’s circumstances changed somehow over the last few years? She ran her hand again over the tufted seat cushion covered in plum-colored velvet, and then touched once more the fine curtains draped over the arched dome of the wagon, which Harman had advised she keep drawn for safety. The long panels were fashioned of a decadent red silk, the likes of which Mari was sure she had only rarely seen, and certainly had never touched. Likewise, the frame of the vehicle was rich with carved wood, and the wheels themselves were made not of some roughly cut and shaped timber, but were smooth and perfectly round, allowing for a more comfortable ride. Never mind that with the curtains drawn, the vehicle was pitched into near darkness, and the air was close and smelled vaguely of old food and something even less pleasant. They stopped around noon and Mari was jarred from a doze, having no one within the fine wagon to keep her company and thus, wakeful. She fussed with the drapes at the rear of the wagon and stepped out onto the solid ground of good, green Scotland. Mari let her eyes skim the immediate area, a thin forest of tall pines, whose lowest limbs sprouted well above her head.

The midday sun fought to pierce the trees, triumphing here and there, dotting the forest floor with bits of light. She found her brother, along with several of the dozen men in his company, taking respite on their backsides on the cool ground. “We won’t stop long,” he said when he noticed her approach. “Take care of your business and we’ll be off again.” Having no call for relief as of yet, Mari perched next to him, sitting on a bulge of dense roots directly under a particularly thick pine. Unabashedly, she stared at her half-brother, several years her senior, having not seen him in years. That morn, when he’d come for her, his pleasing but shocking news that she was going home had denied her the opportunity to consider him overlong. He hadn’t changed much, was still possessed of a thick mane of bright orange hair, with eyebrows several shades lighter and eyes the color of pale gray stone. They were of an equal height, which meant her brother cut a less than remarkable figure as a man, as he was similarly slim. He looked older, perhaps, than his twenty-six years, his cheeks narrower, while several lines seemed to have taken up permanent residency upon his forehead.

“Harman,” she said, “you haven’t told me why you’ve come for me. After all these years, why am I being returned now?” Truly, as the weeks and months had turned into years, Mari had begun to believe she was bound to spend the rest of her life with her mam’s brother, Albert, and his sickly wife, Beatrice. Harman plucked a small pouch from his belt and chewed with some exaggeration on the bread he pulled from it. He offered none to his sister, and she made no request for a share. “Da’ wants you home,” was all he said, a shrug accompanying his words. Mari grinned, hoping for more clarity. “Just like that, after seven years, he decides he wants me home, remembers he has a daughter?” Someone snickered at this. Mari passed a glance around the men scattered nearby. Some met her gaze, as if they’d been watching her. Nervously, she returned her eye to her brother, uncomfortable with the leer of one man in particular, his brown eyes narrowed upon her with some hostile speculation, it seemed.

Harman shrugged again, still chewing. Around the food in his mouth, he said, “Time to wed. Da’s arranged it.” Her eyes widened. “Wed?” Of course she knew she would wed one day, or rather had hoped she might. But she wasn’t of a fine family, where arrangements were made for wealth and titles and land. Her father was naught but a farmer, and a poor one at that. “Wed to whom?” “Walter,” Harman said. Mari blanched. “Walter?” Her shoulders fell while her stomach turned.

“Walter Ramsay?” Harman smirked, his face turned toward her. The smirk was ugly, made him more so. “You ken another Walter?” No, she did not, more’s the pity. Walter Ramsay was Harman’s childhood friend. The son of a local landowner, from whom her father leased land, he was, or he had been when she’d known him, as awful as he was ugly. Mean and petty, he’d made her cry in his presence more times than not, had lived with a certain hunger for causing trouble, and one time had actually pulled old Meg Creech from her cart so that he might amuse himself with a joyride. Mari could still recall the damage he’d inflicted upon poor Meg’s aged nag with a combination of his complete disregard for gentleness and the crop he’d quickly fashioned from the thin branch of a tree. “Aye, he’s been waiting on this day for years now,” Harman was saying, his sneer intact. “But shouldn’t he be seeking an alliance with some noble family,” she wondered desperately, “or at the very least, with a family of greater wealth?” This reminded her of her question about the costly vehicle that had been sent along to convey her home. “Has something changed in our circumstances, that we are to be aligned with the Ramsay family, and are now in possession of so fine a wagon?” Several men within earshot of this snorted.

Mari could not say whether this was in reaction to her obvious distaste and reluctance, or her mention of the wagon. But Harman only lifted and dropped his shoulders once again. “Nae, Mari, we’re still poor as shite. But Walter kens what he wants, always has. He willna be denied.” She feared the disagreeable sensation in her stomach, a rioting of her body, might become a permanent thing if she were to be married to that boy—man now, she supposed. Walter kens what he wants, always has. What on earth did that mean? Mari could make no sense of it. Perhaps she might talk her father out of this scheme. Her shoulders slumped further.

Likely, she would know little sympathy from the man who had so easily sent her away, an extra mouth to feed being of greater import, apparently, than his love for her. They stopped again just as the sun was beginning its final descent behind the jagged green and brown hills in the west. Finding Harman at the front of the wagon, she advised him that she would find relief in the strand of trees nearby. He nodded gruffly, busy with the poorly crafted shoe of his horse and whatever its trouble might be. Lifting the skirts of her plain brown kirtle, she picked her way over rock and around scrub brush and off into the trees. Returning only moments later, having just cleared the last of the birch trees, Mari expected to find her brother and his men settling in for the evening, perhaps making a fire over which they might warm themselves, as the night air would grow cold, no doubt. This was not the scene. Men scrambled, some from spots upon the ground and some from other sections of those trees. Harman was frowning, his light orange brows drawn down over his pale eyes as he stared off toward the south. And then Mari heard it, a thunderous noise.

She turned and followed Harman’s gaze, but saw nothing but more trees, dissected by the sliver of a road upon which they’d just ridden. The noise grew louder, and it was only a split second before Mari realized it was horses. And plenty of them, galloping toward them at what must be a great speed, to have wrought such a booming commotion. The close movements of her companions then drew her attention. The men began to gain their saddles again, two of them already racing away, further north. Mari met her brother’s gaze, her momentarily frozen feet moving toward him. “Harman?” Mari’s brother raced toward his steed, ignoring her. “Harman!” Panicked now, she turned and ran for the wagon, crying out when she noticed that the horse had already been relieved of its yoke, and that the man who’d driven the cart all day was leaping onto the bare back of the palfrey. He kicked the horse’s flanks with a frantic zeal and rode away. Stunned, Mari faced her brother again, the last man remaining.

He’d gained the saddle and circled his mount around her, a grimace contorting his features. Lifting her hand, expecting to be pulled up onto his horse, she heard instead, “I’m sorry, Mari.” She jerked her gaze to her brother, while her hand remained arrested in midair. The noise behind her grew louder still. Harman’s gaze shifted, went over her head, and then back to her. “I canna be caught, Mari. ’Twould be the noose for me.” “Harman!” Mari screeched, his grimace explained. “Take me up!” she demanded. She lunged forward, but her brother moved himself and his horse out of her reach.

“I canna, Mari. I need you to stall them.” “Stall them?” Her throat clogged and her mind whirred. My God! What was he saying? “I— Harman, what—” “It’ll likely be over quickly, but you’ll at least be alive when they’re done. Wouldn’t be the case for me.” Mari dropped her hand, only half understanding what he might be talking about. Certainly she understood that he cared naught for her, would leave her to whomever approached so furiously through the trees. She dashed forward, intent on climbing up onto his horse whether he liked it or not. But her brother, her only surviving sibling, gave another unsympathetic grimace, beat his heels into the animal’s flanks, and was away. She could only stare, gape-jawed, at her brother’s departing figure.

He charged straight up the lane, around the curve and out of sight. The empty road ahead held all her bewildered attention until the noise behind her became deafening. Desperate now, tears threatening, Mari lifted her skirts and ran off the narrow road, thinking to hide herself in the trees. LACHLAN MAITLAND PUSHED his steed up and over the last rise of Tyrebagger Hill and caught just a glimpse of a moving shape and flowing fabric headed into the woods. He called out harshly, “Utrid! Fetch that lass!” In another moment, he flew past the place where the figure had disappeared, with the bulk of his men following him. They reached the spot where the well-trod path curved, affording them a fine view of a widened meadow and the Kirkhill forest beyond. The meadow was empty, naught to see but a patchwork of fields and grass and a lichen-covered yew tree, standing sentinel in the foreground. Lachlan cursed roundly and slowed his mount. These were the reivers from Blackburn, he knew. He just knew it.

Not true reivers, being so far north. True reivers were border folk, their land and homes destroyed by the ongoing feud with England, their location simply a matter of poor luck. Their homes and livelihood looted and burned in so many skirmishes with England had forced them to make their living any way they could. Raiding and wreaking havoc along the border, both in England and in Scotland, had provided food and monies they’d been robbed of by the war. But this group, they were naught but opportunists—a band of unaligned thieves who made war on their own, claiming some protest to the continued battle with England, while their overdone violence suggested only bloodlust and greed as motives. A muscle ticked in his cheek, another in his temple, as he clenched his jaw. They would pay, by God, when he caught up with them. Yanking hard on the reins, Lachlan turned his destrier and began to walk him back to where he’d sent Utrid off to recover the girl. “We can catch them yet.” Turning to his left showed his captain, Murdoch, walking beside him.

A heavy frown crinkled the eyes and forehead of his old friend. Lachlan nodded. “Aye, we might have.” Tipping his head to where Utrid was now dragging a screaming lass out of the woods, he said, “Should be easy to get the names of those we chase.” “Release me at once,” the girl demanded of Utrid, scratching at the hand that circled her arm so tightly. “Did your mam raise you to manhandle women in this manner?” Lachlan took note of her boldness as she upbraided the lad. He passed a glance over the abandoned cart—too fine a vehicle to have transported this lass in her rough-hewn gown—and drew conclusions about the leaving of the cart and the girl. “Likely, she would scold you soundly,” the lass went on, even as Utrid tried to ignore her— though his pinkened cheeks suggested otherwise—and delivered her to his chief. Lachlan was presented with a slim figure dwarfed by a wealth of auburn hair, the mass of it a curtain around her face and shoulders. Her face was yet turned away from him as she continued to fuss over Utrid’s hand on her arm.

Settling his hands on the pommel, Lachlan met Utrid’s aggrieved look and gave a nod, so that the lad removed his hand from her person. Utrid did not remain, but was off, back toward the trees, likely to collect the mount he’d discarded when pursuing the lass. She turned and faced Lachlan. “Oh.” The sound was not much more than a whimper, not at all unexpected. He was used to persons wilting before him when first they met him. Lachlan lifted a brow at her, stalling, giving himself a moment to come to terms with the fact that whoever she was, whatever she was, she was absolutely breathtaking. Eyes like that—bright blue under the golden setting sun, spiked by tears of panic—should rightly be outlawed, possibly had brought men to ruin, even as she appeared to have no more years than the lad Utrid himself. Tossing his gaze briefly toward the bend in the lane, Lachlan said, “They left rather hastily.” His words, as always, came unhurriedly, his voice deep.

Beside him, Murdoch added, “Left something behind.” She lifted her hand, turned the palm up, while the pale skin of her face turned white. And then, remarkably, the hand waved dismissively as she forced out a purposefully merry titter of a laugh. “How silly of them,” she said. “I was gone but a moment—” She stopped suddenly, as if the extent of her manufactured reasoning went only that far. “They’ll be back.” Her voice wavered now as she stared at Lachlan’s unblinking gaze and did her best to not gape at the scarring. “Will they?” he wondered aloud. More false brightness. “But of course, just as soon as they realize they’ve…gone without me.

” Lachlan nodded, digesting this, letting his silence unnerve her yet more. He kept hold of her frightened gaze, not at all immune to either her brave stance or the shape of her lips, full and bowed and temptingly pink. In reaction to his brash and hard perusal, she blinked rapidly and bit her bottom lip, creating a bracket of indents on either side of her mouth. Jesu, dimples, too? Murdoch, ever impatient and bereft of any form of subtlety, chirped, “I dinna think so, lass. Fine friends you’ve got there, leaving you to fend for yourself.” “Fend?” she squeaked. But this, too, she waved off with further fabricated lightness. The dimples reappeared, “How fine of you to stop and offer aid to a weary traveler. But don’t let me keep you gentlemen. Surely, my party will return anon.

” Lachlan almost—almost!—barked out a laugh. The bonny lass had no idea how fortunate she was to have been found by him and his men. Many others…aye, they’d take what those lips promised. “The men—the ones who just deserted you,” Lachlan said, deciding the time for games was done, “who are they to you?” Practicing a bit of her own stalling, she lifted a hand and pointed one slim finger in the direction of the bend in the road. “Those men?” Aware that even the slightest facial expression intensified the grisliness of his scar, Lachlan smirked anyway. He leaned forward over the pommel. “Aye. Those men.” “They were—are—” she was quick to correct, “my escort.” A small bit of silence preceded the addition of, “Home.

” His grin widened. “I think not, lass. Home for you is not to the north. I ken an English lass when I hear her.” She frowned at him, which was amazing in that it detracted not at all from her beauty. “Half Scottish,” she insisted, thrusting her hands onto her hips. “When it suits you,” he supposed in return, having no idea why he felt the desire to rile her. He sensed Murdoch’s attention on him, as if he, too, questioned this response. “But aye, an escort is family or is hired. Which is it?” Rather in a huff, fisting her hands as they dropped from her hips, she said, “Family, if you must know.

Which is what assures me of my brother’s return. Good day, sirs. I will await them at the wagon.” Lachlan watched her walk away, noticing the rigid set of her narrow back. “Give her a few minutes to let her fear expand,” he suggested when Murdoch made to follow. With that, he dismounted and walked his destrier over to Rory, who’d taken charge of the horses when they’d stopped. He swept his gaze around the twenty men he’d brought with him to Midmar, in search of the devil wreaking havoc upon local villages. As if the war with England, as if their own king fighting for his proper crown was not enough turmoil to keep a chief busy, he had to contend with this lawless rubbish, some whelp of a boy—so said the reports—looting and pillaging at will up and down the coast north of Aberdeen. “Charles! Niel!” he called out. “Get a fire going.

We’ll stay the night.” Murdoch, having likewise dismounted, was at his side again. “Do you not think we ought to head back to Hawkmore?” Lachlan lifted a brow at him. “You have some need for a quick return?” He did not await a response but directed his steps toward the lass and her silly wagon, which was in all likelihood not hers at all. She sat rather delicately upon the long and smooth timber of the tongue where it leaned from the front of the vehicle down into the ground, the neck yoke bereft of the beast who had pulled it. The low-hung sun, directly behind Lachlan’s head, forced her to lift her hand to her brow as she measured his approach. Lachlan strode past her, to the rear of the wagon, and flipped back the silky curtain to peer inside. The curtain itself was much finer than the coarse linen of her plain gown. ’Twas empty inside save for one worn satchel, not even a lone trunk to say this girl’s travel had been planned. Or, maybe all that she owned was just here, inside that worn satchel.

“Sir!” She’d followed him, had leapt from her perch and stood at his side, outraged at his intrusion. “What are—” “’Tis a fine wagon,” he commented. “Yes,” she acknowledged with some hesitation. “So,” he said, facing her, “you’ve been collected by your family, in a wagon that surely belongs not to you, and are being taken home, as you say. For what? Where have you been? Where is home?” Curved brows of dark brown angled down over those blue eyes. Up close, Lachlan noticed the blue of her eyes was dotted with tiny spots of gold; the dense fringe of lashes surrounding these was a shade darker than her hair and brows. Freckles, slight and pale, dotted the skin across her nose and cheeks. Lachlan frowned. “Sir, I am not sure that is any of your business.” They stood face to face, though Lachlan towered over her, while Murdoch hovered close.

Other men, those without some chore to attend, gathered as well. “Aye, but it is,” Lachlan said. “We’re hunting reivers, lass, and I’ve a feeling your brother and the party that deserted you are the ones we seek.” Those blue eyes nervously scanned the gathering crowd before settling on Lachlan once more. She couldn’t help it, people never could, that her gaze was transfixed by his scar. The rate of her breathing increased, her chest rising and falling with greater speed under that drab brown gown. “As I said, my brother came to fetch me home—I’ve been in England with my uncle for many years. I know nothing of any reivers.” She bit her lip again, watching Lachlan still. When he said nothing to this claim, she added, “Apparently, I am to be wed.

” This, then, was not to her liking, if her disagreeable tone and growing frown were any indication. “To whom?” Murdoch asked. “I’m quite sure his name will mean nothing to you,” she answered, but revealed, “Walter Ramsay.” A collective clamor of disbelief sounded throughout the men. Murdoch whistled low to demonstrate his shock. Lachlan stared at her, watching her glance this way and that, around all the Maitland soldiers. “Och, lass. You’ve made my day,” Murdoch said, adding a chortle. Pulling on his long beard as he leaned toward her, he asked, “You ken who this man is, lass?” He flicked his thumb at Lachlan. Her lips parted, worried now, and she dragged her gaze back to Lachlan.

She shook her head, and Lachlan wondered briefly about what he considered a lack of the proper amount of fear on her bonny face; this would change with the introduction, he assumed. “’Tis the Lord of Hawkmore, the devil himself, Lachlan Maitland, the Highland Hawk say some, proud defender of Scotland’s freedom, and former confidante of the proud patriot William Wallace— may his soul rest in peace.” She turned her fabulous blue eyes from Murdoch back to Lachlan, completely unimpressed. Or dimwitted, Lachlan guessed. Or too long gone to England? “Hawkmore? Is that anywhere near Newburgh? Perhaps you might escort me home—were you and your men headed home?” she asked, lifting her brow expectantly. Lachlan and Murdoch exchanged another speaking glance, stupefied by her calm demeanor. Mayhap she was as innocent as she looked, mayhap she had no idea that the Maitlands and Ramsays had been grave enemies for decades. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Lachlan said, “Nae, lass. We’ll no’ be escorting you home.” This answer seemed not to disturb her at all.

“Very well, sir. I’m sure my party will return for me right quick.” She followed this pronouncement with a beauteous and confident smile, which had many sets of eyes darting back and forth between the lass and Lachlan. Lachlan ignored the growing befuddlement of his men and the bemused frown crinkling Murdoch’s forehead. “Saints preserve us,” his captain muttered beside him. “They won’t return,” Lachlan said firmly, wanting to be done with this nonsense. The smile faltered and left her eyes, even as her pretty pink lips remained curved. “They will,” she returned without an ounce of conviction. Lachlan shook his head, holding her gaze. She began to nod, as if the positive motion would make it true.

Her bottom lip began to tremble while tears gathered once more in her captivating eyes. Glancing around nervously at the growing number of soldiers surrounding her, she swallowed and raised her chin. “And you won’t help me, I gather?” Shaking his head again, slowly from side to side, Lachlan answered, “Nae, lass. We’ve no plans to help you. We aim to kidnap you.”

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