Staring at the break in the trees below, he summoned the brief memory of his pursuer, an image drawn stark as a broadsheet engraving across his mind’s eye: an upright figure, alert in the saddle—not the slouch of an inebriate. A farmer hearth-bound, unconcerned with him or his newly inflated purse? He weighed the notion, and dismissed it.
A whirring filled his head, a hum beneath the excruciating throb. Cicadas, abuzz in the parched green blur beyond the camp.
He squinted until his gaze sharpened—along with his headache—and passed his gaze over the roan, head, chest, and forelegs, over the piebald markings that spattered its sides like a splash of whitewash.
“God bethankit for small mercies,” he muttered. After coming through the past hours with the life and limb of all concerned intact, he supposed himself indebted to the Almighty. Again.
A fieldstone hearth took up most of the north-facing wall. Birds had used its mantle for a roost. Under layers of soot and droppings, Ian made out the words carved into its face.
FOR I AM A STRANGER WITH THEE, AND A SOJOURNER
“And where did ye journey to from here?”
After a tarnished ending to dinner, an excursion to the stable had come as a welcome diversion. The girls managed to entice the new filly to snuffle at their fingers, then proceeded to pet and make a fuss over Ruaidh, Huzzah, and the still unnamed pack mare.
“You’ll let us name her, Cousin?” Rosalyn had entreated. “It’s only fair turnabout, since you named our Juturna.”
By way of redeeming himself, he’d agreed. “Saving ye don’t saddle her with some foolishness like Posey or Buttercup."
Laughing, Rosalyn had touched his arm. "With such a classical example as you've provided? Heavens, we shall do better than Posey."
He caught her up again in a few swift strides. Bare heels flashed below the dew-spattered hem of her skirt. The ground was rough. He'd likely cause her an apoplexy if he scooped her into his arms and carried her the rest of the way, to spare her feet. Still, the idea held appeal.
Something sparkled at eye-level, diamond-bright, and he jerked his head up. A dark spot blossomed on the crown of her kerchief where a bead of moisture had fallen from the boughs above. She made no sign she noticed, never breaking stride, the long braid swinging above her hips like a pendulum. The curls at its end glinted bronze as she passed through a band of sunlight.
The childish urge came over him to give her plait a tug, to break the tension between them. He was reaching for it, when he realized the forest had thinned.