Excerpt: The Outcast
Lachlan, still half-asleep, winced and groaned as the cottage shook from the impact of the door slamming. He opened one eye. The other felt like it was sealed shut. His mouth was as dry as plaster. And his head throbbed from the aftereffects of too much whisky.
“Campbell,” he moaned. Over the past few weeks, the hound had somehow learned how to open the latch on the cottage door and tended to come and go as he pleased.
But the scuffling didn’t quite sound like his hound. And when Lachlan managed to pry open his other eye, both eyes went suddenly wide at the sight before him.
Instinctively, he rose up on his elbows. “Who are ye?”
The tall young woman in the green gown blinked in surprise, as if she didn’t expect to see anyone actually inhabiting the cottage. At least he thought she blinked. ‘Twas hard to tell, because her eyes were shielded by two round pieces of glass perched atop her nose.
Before she could answer him, there was a loud pounding at the door. She dove for the bed, sailing over him to wriggle beneath the bed linens and pull the sheepskin coverlet over her head.
He was still reeling in shock at her boldness when the pounding came again, accompanied by irate shouts.
She started at the sound, and he felt her cold, naked leg brush against his as her small icy fist burrowed beneath his hip.
He glanced down at the shivering mound of sheepskin beside him. The woman was clearly hiding from whoever was outside. And whoever was outside clearly knew she was here. The last thing Lachlan needed was to get caught in the crossfire.
The pounding resumed, louder this time, and the woman peeked out long enough to plead with him in an urgent whisper. “I beg ye, sir, hide me. I fear they mean to burn me at the stake.” She was pale from the cold, but her cheeks were rosy from exertion, and she was quivering like a cornered mouse. Indeed, with her longish nose and those big spectacles, she looked a bit like a mouse. “Please, sir, please. Keep me safe.”
Then he frowned. Keep her safe. He was the last person to be trusted to keep someone safe. His brothers had depended on him to keep them safe. Four gravestones were proof of how that had ended.
But Campbell was staring expectantly at the door. And Lachlan knew he had to answer it. If whoever was outside intended to burn the woman at the stake, they might be carrying torches even now. And they might decide to make quick work of it by setting his whole cottage on fire.
With as little fuss as possible, Lachlan eased his right leg over the edge of the bed, tucked his crutch under his left arm, and pushed up. As usual, he staggered, and his head started throbbing, but he managed to regain his balance and limp over to the doorway.
He snatched open the door. “What do ye want?” he demanded harshly.
At least a dozen townsmen crowded together, trying to peer past him into the one-room cottage. He knew the men, though in the last three months since he’d moved back to Keirfield, he’d kept mostly to himself. Now—whether ’twas due to his rough and ragged appearance, his stern scowl, or his growling hound—nobody answered his question.
“Ye hauled me out o’ bed with your infernal racket,” he bit out. “So what do ye want?”
Finally, Father Ninian, the red-haired parish priest, gathered up enough courage to raise his quivering double-chin, demanding, “Hand over the lass, and we’ll leave ye to your affairs.”
Lachlan wondered what on earth a wee lass could have done to incur the wrath of this mob. Two of the villagers had their daggers drawn, four more wielded spades, and all of them had feverish fire in their eyes. He didn’t care if the woman had butchered their livestock and set their fields on fire. ‘Twas an unfair fight, and he didn’t like unfair fights.
“Lass?” he dared them. “What lass?”