Her Highness and the Highlander(3)

By: Tracy Anne Warren

The innkeeper adjusted the apron over his substantial girth and strode around the long wooden counter that bisected his domain. “Och, now, an’ what do ye think ye’re aboot, drippin’ all o’er me floors? ’Tis a quality establishment, this is, an’ we don’t take yer kind in ’ere. I’m afraid ye’ll have tae go.”

The woman stood unmoving, a shiver chasing visibly over her drenched form. “Go?” she repeated in weak disbelief. “But I just arrived. I have been walking for miles.”

Curious, Daniel thought as he listened to her reply. For a beggar woman, her speech was remarkably refined and not the least bit Scottish. English, clearly, he decided, and yet her words held a kind of precise perfection that did not sound completely natural. It was almost as if she had been taught the language rather than been born to it. Could she be foreign?

He was still puzzling over the possibility when the innkeeper continued.

“Miles, is it?” The man scowled. “Weel, unless ye’ve coin tae pay yer way, I canna help ye. ’Ave ye any coin?”

She stared for a long moment, then shook her head. “No. I never carry money.”

The innkeeper rocked back on his heels, while a couple of patrons laughed at what was clearly the oddest way of saying she was poor that any of them had ever heard.

“Sorry, then, lass, but ye’ll ’ave tae be off.”

“But I need to speak to a magistrate. My coach was set upon by highwaymen.” She trembled and wrapped her arms around herself. “I n-need to report the crime. I n-need shelter and s-somewhere to rest until my friends can be contacted.”

Her teeth began chattering, though whether from cold or fright, Daniel could not tell.

The innkeeper goggled. “Highwaymen, is it you say? In these parts? Where? On what road?”

She shook her head. “I do not know. I told you I’ve been walking through the storm. It was on the main road south—or at least I think it was the main road…I don’t know any longer.”

“And where is the rest of yer party? What became of them?”

A shudder went through her and she swayed on her feet. “Might I have a seat, if you would be so good?”

She waited, making no move to seek a chair on her own; it was, Daniel realized after a moment, as if she expected someone to bring the chair to her.

No one did.

Daniel saw her tremble and sway slightly again. Was she going to faint? Given her condition, it was entirely possible.

Used to making quick decisions, he stood and picked up the mate to the straight-backed wooden chair in which he’d been sitting. His boots echoed against the wide-planked pine floors as he carried it across to her and set it down. When she didn’t immediately react, he took a gentle hold of her elbow and steered her onto the seat.

Only then did she look up, her gaze meeting his.

Her eyes were like a pair of dark luminous pools, deep and soulful and unspeakably beautiful. Their color was brown but not an ordinary brown. Instead, their hue was an intriguing mixture of ripe earth and night sky with hints of black and gold woven through to create a shade quite unlike any he had ever glimpsed. The closest comparison he could make would be to a cup of intensely rich, fine Belgian chocolate he’d once had occasion to drink—warm and sensual and indescribably sweet. Even so, the color of that chocolate did not do her eyes justice.

As for the rest of her, it was difficult to tell. Her pale visage was obscured by a layer of dirt and fear—very definitely fear—but not, he sensed, of himself.

“Thank you,” she murmured softly, so softly he nearly missed the words.

“So ye were set upon?” the innkeeper continued brusquely.

“That’s right,” she answered, turning her head to look at the older man.

“Robbed ye, did they?”

“N-no, not exactly, they…” Her words trailed off, the small bit of color that had come into her face leaching away so that she looked pale as death.

“If they didn’t rob ye, what dae’d they want? McCrawber’ll want ter know. He’s no magistrate, but he does fer the law around these parts. Surprised he’s not ’ere this evenin’. Comes in most nights. Must be the rain.”

“Yes. The rain is very cold and unpleasant,” she said, another tremor rippling over her skin.

She must be in shock, Daniel decided. He had seen it often on the battlefield, men who could walk and talk and function yet who didn’t seem quite right for all that. Men who’d seen too much, more than they could handle. What, he wondered, had she seen?

“Weel, so what was it the highwaymen was after, if not yer purse?” the innkeeper persisted.