The Warrior’s Touch
“Aileen! There’s a dead man in the fields!” Lorcan dashed inside the stone hut, shifting his weight from one foot to the other with excitement.
A dead man? Aileen Ã“ Duinne dropped the garlic bulbs she had picked that morning and stood. “Are you sure he is dead?” Anticipation rippled through her with the faint hope that the man was still alive.
Lorcan shrugged. “He wasn’t moving. And there’s blood everywhere.”
Likely the boy was correct. Aileen tried not to get her hopes up. But if he wasn’t dead, she might be able to save him.
“Where did you find him?”
“I’ll show you.” Lorcan thought for a moment, his brown eyes growing worried. “Will I get into trouble for telling you? He’s already dead.”
Aileen shook her head. “Do not worry. You did right to come to me.”
It is forbidden, her mind warned her. If her chieftain Seamus found out, he would punish her. She was not allowed to heal any of the tribe members.
But there was no time to worry about that now. Belisama, please let him be alive.
Lorcan followed her inside the hut while she piled her basket with fresh linen bandages, comfrey, and yarrow. Turning, she regarded Lorcan. “Take me to him.”
The boy scampered off in the direction of the north pasture. Aileen ran behind him, past several of the neighboring stone huts. One of the men stopped his work in the fields, staring at her with distaste. Aileen tore her gaze away from him.
Don’t worry about what he thinks, she told herself. You did nothing wrong. Even still, her cheeks burned with humiliation. The villagers hadn’t forgotten the bad luck that followed her.
The morning dew dampened the hem of her gown as she followed Lorcan. The boy raced on ahead, pointing toward the lee side of the hill.
Ragged summer grasses swayed in the wind. A small patch lay crumpled by the man’s body lying face down. The awkward position of his limbs suggested a fall from a horse. His blood stained the summer grasses, and Aileen’s hands shook as she reached out to touch him.
A low moan escaped the body. Sweet saints. He was alive.
Thank the gods. They had granted her a second chance to prove herself, and she intended to make the most of it.
“Go and fetch Riordan,” Aileen ordered Lorcan. “I’ll need help moving the man. Tell him to bring one of his horses.”
She would not let this man die. No matter what anyone else thought of her skills, she would heal him.
After Lorcan had gone, she turned the man over. His swollen face stopped her heart. Despite his injuries, she would recognize him anywhere. Connor MacEgan. She had never thought to see him again.
Fear and reckless longing pulled at her, shredding her composure. Of all the men for Fate to leave in her hands, why did it have to be him?
His face, the face of one of God’s angels, had haunted her dreams ever since she was a young girl. With firm lips, a straight nose, and a strong jaw, the traces of Viking ancestry on his grandfather’s side were evident. Blood matted his dark golden hair and seeped from a gash at his temple.
She had loved him once. Pain arced through her at the memory, but she forced it away. Her hands trembled as she unlaced his tunic. With her dagger, she sliced the dun-colored wool to reveal a warrior’s hardened chest. He had been stabbed several times, but the cuts were shallow. Almost like torture . . .
She shook the terrible thought away. How long had he been here? From his gray pallor, she wondered how much blood he had lost. It might be too late to heal him.
Do not think of it. She swabbed his chest, and then turned her attention to his head. She held pressure upon his temple to stanch the bleeding.
He must not die. She needed to bring him back to the sick hut to stitch the deeper wounds and to splint the broken bones. But she couldn’t do it without help. Where was Riordan?
The horizon stretched into emptiness with not a sign of either of them. She couldn’t rely on anyone else to come to her aid. Most of the villagers believed she was cursed.
She withdrew several garlic cloves from her basket, pressing them gently against Connor’s chest. She bound the wound tightly and prayed that the garlic would ward off the demons of fever.
At last, she heard the sound of a horse approaching. It made her breathe a little easier. She waved to Riordan and he dismounted. A sturdy man, accustomed to working in the fields, Riordan stood a head taller than most men. His cheeks were ruddy, and he was easily recognizable with his bright red hair.
From the obvious look of pleasure upon his face, he was glad she’d summoned him. He found excuses to be near her, now that she was widowed. And he was the one man whom she could trust to help her.
“Is the man alive?” he called.
“Barely. I’ll need your help bringing him back to the sick hut.” She supported Connor’s body, raising him into a seated position. Throughout the awkward motions, he did not stir.
When Riordan saw Connor’s face, his sympathy transformed into anger and jealousy. “Connor MacEgan.” Bitterness lined his tone. “You should leave him where he lies, the bastard.”
“I am a healer,” Aileen argued. “If the Devil himself needed my care, I would give it.”
Connor might as well be the Devil, she thought. With him, she could not detach herself into the calm world where nothing else existed, save her healing. His very presence unnerved her.
Riordan grumbled but helped her lift Connor onto the horse. His body hung motionless against the horse’s mane. As they guided the horse back towards her land, she found herself wanting to move faster.
“What has brought him back here?” Riordan asked. “I thought he’d returned to his kinsmen.”
“If he lives, you may ask him that yourself.”
A dark look eclipsed his face. “I am helping him only for you, Aileen. I’ve no wish to speak to him at all.”
She hid her exasperation even as she urged the horse onward. “We must make haste. He has to live.”
“Why? Because you’ve feelings for him?”
“Because if he dies, it only proves that I am cursed. I cannot lose another person. If he lives, Seamus might let me heal again.”
“No one knows you found him,” Riordan pointed out.
“Lorcan found him first. Everyone in the tuatha will know of it by nightfall.” She had no doubt of that. “Did you send him home again?”
“I did, tÃ¡.”
“Good.” Fear sank deep within, freezing her with worry that Connor would not wake. He had not moved once during the journey back to her land.
“I still do not like it. We should bring him to Seamus instead.”
Aileen was not about to surrender this chance, not from one man’s jealousy. She laid her hand upon his shoulder. “Let your mind be at peace, Riordan. After he heals, he’ll be gone.” Her touch sparked a flash of interest in his eyes, and she suddenly wished she had not made the impulsive gesture.
He gave her hand a squeeze, and yearning spread across his face once more. Aileen reminded herself that a steady, good husband such as Riordan was a sensible choice. She had long ago abandoned dreams of handsome warriors. Men like Connor MacEgan simply didn’t notice her.
Within moments, they reached the small plot of land she called her own. As she passed the rows of plantings, Aileen considered iris root or marigold flowers, should Connor’s wounds worsen. Silently, she said a prayer to both the Christian God and the gods of her ancestors for healing.
“Bring him inside the sick hut,” she ordered. The stone dwelling, erected a few paces from her own hut, was designed for treating the wounded and ill members of their tribe.
In the past two moons, not a single person had trusted her enough to make use of it. She had kept it meticulously clean, hoping that one day the villagers might call upon her. Inwardly she feared her chieftain would force her to go elsewhere when another healer took her place. Seamus had not forgiven her.
Bitterness welled up inside of her. Men had died because they were too proud, too superstitious to seek her help.
She opened the hide door and ducked beneath the bundle of dyed wool hanging to ward off evil spirits. Inside, the temperature was cool and it smelled of damp earth. Riordan set Connor’s limp body upon one of the pallets filled with soft straw. Though his unresponsive state suggested worse injuries, she held fast to her hopes.
“Do you need a fire?” Riordan offered.
Aileen hesitated. Though she knew he wanted to help, she preferred to work alone. “I will build one.”
“It is no trouble.”
He started to gather peat to bring inside the hut, but Aileen blocked his path. She didn’t want the cloying scent of smoke to interfere with her healing. “Thank you, Riordan. I will be all right on my own now.”
“I don’t want you alone with him. He is not to be trusted.”
She repressed a sigh. “He is unconscious, Riordan. I doubt the man could lift his head if he wanted to.”
Her logic seemed to reassure him, and he lowered the stack of peat. “Shall I come back this eve?” Hope lit up his expression.
“Another time, perhaps.”
His shoulders lowered. “We should send a messenger to MacEgan’s family. I would be glad to do so.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “So eager to help him, are you?”
With a look toward the sick hut, Riordan crossed his arms. “Anything that will send him far from here would give me pleasure.”
“You’ve nothing to fear from him.”
“I will come on the morrow, should you need my help again.”
She managed a smile. “I will be fine, thank you.”
When he had gone, she breathed easier. Though he only wanted to offer his assistance, Riordan’s presence interfered with her concentration.
She worked rapidly, dropping the stack of peat into the outdoor hearth. Within moments, she kindled a fire and moved heavy river stones into the flames to heat. She set a pot of water to boil over the fire.
Then she entered the sick hut and sat beside Connor. For a brief second, his eyes fluttered open. She froze, not knowing what he would think of his whereabouts. But in the dim light, he showed no sign of recognition. It was as if he didn’t see her at all.
Aileen tamped down the feeling of disappointment when his eyes closed once more. She adjusted his position to make him more comfortable. When she touched his hand, she noted that the swelling had grown worse. She needed splints.
Darting outside, she returned to her own hut. She gathered fresh linen and wood for the splints. In her hurry she dropped the bundle, and it was then that she noticed her shaking fingers. She needed to calm her racing heart and concentrate upon the medicines.
Stop behaving like a foolish maiden, her heart warned. He probably won’t remember you.
The dark swelling upon Connor’s hands meant he’d broken several bones. She filled a fold of her woolen brat with the linen and splints, using the shawl to carry them.
Stopping by the fire, she filled a bowl with heated water from the pot. The river stones. She’d almost forgotten. She dropped the splints and bandages inside the threshold, then set the hot water near her herbs. Last, she returned to the fire and used an iron rod to roll the heated granite stones to warm the interior of the sick hut.
Connor had not regained consciousness. Aileen took a deep breath and gathered her composure. She knelt beside him and cut away the blood-soaked tunic with her knife. He hadn’t moved even once. Voices of doubt began to undermine her confidence. What if he had slipped too far past the barrier between life and death?
Stop worrying about what you cannot do, and concentrate on what you can. She searched her memories for advice the elderly healer Kyna had given her. Lily roots or mallow leaves, should the swelling worsen. Would it be enough? Connor was the chieftain’s foster son, well loved by the family. If she saved him, it might help mend the animosity.
Aileen removed the linen bandage and garlic bulbs. Then she cleansed the blood from his face, dipping the cloth into cool water. She voiced a quiet healing chant to keep her roiling emotions calm.
She washed his chest wounds again, noting which cuts would need to be sewn closed. As her fingers moved across his torso, unwanted memories sprang forth.
The forbidden taste of his kiss had once filled her dreams. Connor’s powerful body had embraced her on a moonlit night, strong muscles pressing against her willing flesh. A shiver raced through her, and Aileen quelled the forgotten sensation of desire. She stood, wrenching her concentration back to his wounds.
As she moved away from Connor, she walked past bunches of drying herbs hanging from the ceiling. The spicy fragrance helped clear her thoughts. She stopped before a small table where she kept her medicines, selecting comfrey for his wounds. Using a mortar and pestle, she mashed the root until it became a moist pulp. Then she poured hot water over the root.
She sat beside Connor, placing the mortar within reach. Threading a bone needle, she began to stitch the deep gash upon his temple. From his waxen skin and the way he did not react to the piercing, she wondered if he might die after all.
A tendril of regret unfolded in the recesses of her heart. She had tried to hate him, tried to purge the feelings she’d once had. But a part of him would always remain, though she might wish to forget the past.
Aileen held the torn flesh of his chest together while stitching the wounds closed. Though she had sewn countless wounds, healing even the worst sorts of gashes, it was as if the needle pierced her own flesh.
Why couldn’t she separate herself from this task? Why did it frighten her to see him struggle to live? She had thought those feelings were long gone.
She poured the warmed comfrey root upon his chest and bound it once more. Now it was time to turn her attention elsewhere–to the broken bones. The awkward angle of the bone and dark purple bruises upon his right hand revealed a broken wrist. His left hand was swollen, the knuckles raw.
Strange. These wounds were not from battle. Someone had deliberately tried to crush the bones. The thought of torture rose up again. Her stomach twisted, and doubts invaded her mind.
Did she have the skill to heal such intricate wounds? Or worse, did she possess the courage to remove his hands, if it was needed to save his life? Should the skin turn green or blacken, she’d have no choice. Her heart faltered, nausea rising at the thought of causing such pain. She sent up another prayer against the demons of sickness.
“Mother, is everything all right?” Her daughter Rhiannon entered, and Aileen halted at the sight of her. With all that had happened, she hadn’t thought of it. Her daughter, though fostered elsewhere, visited daily to learn the trade of healing.
Aileen glanced toward Connor and saw that he had not regained consciousness. Putting an arm around Rhiannon, she led her daughter from the hut. “Everything is fine.”
Rhiannon’s face dimmed with confusion. “Would you like my help? The man back there–”
“Not today.” Aileen struggled to keep her voice calm. “But you may offer prayers for him.”
Rhiannon’s expression turned critical. “Will the prayers heal him?” She twisted her dark brown braid, a worried expression puckering her face.
“It can do no harm.”
“Let me help you,” her daughter begged.
“No.” The word came out sharper than she’d intended. Aileen forced herself to smile. â€œHe will be well soon enough. It is not as bad as it seems.â€ The lie added to her burden of guilt.
â€œYou are a good healer, Mother. No matter what they say,â€ Rhiannon said. With shining eyes, she added, â€œI want to be like you.â€
Aileen’s skin warmed with embarrassment. “I hope that you become a better healer than I.” Grateful she was, to have such a bond with her daughter. Most children grew closer to their foster parents than to their own flesh and blood. Rhiannon visited often, and with each passing year Aileen loved her daughter more.
“They are bringing a new healer,” Rhiannon admitted, a frown shadowing her face. “I heard TÃ³mas speak of it.”
“Within a sennight.” Rhiannon took her mother’s hand. “But she can’t be as good as you. What happened wasn’t your fault. They–”
“It does not matter,” Aileen interrupted. “Your foster parents will be waiting for you. You must go now.”
“Shall I see you on the morrow?”
“Not until this man is gone.”
“But why? I have helped with battle wounds before.”
“Do not argue with me. When he has returned to his people, then you may return.” Aileen drew her daughter into an embrace. She stroked Rhiannon’s deep brown hair, murmuring, “I shall see you after that.”
Rhiannon held her tightly. “I’ll come back to see you soon, Mother.”
“I love you, a inÃon. Be good.” She touched her nose to Rhiannon’s.
Aileen waited until her daughter reached the top of the hillside before she returned to Connor. Thank the Gods, Rhiannon had not questioned her further.
Inside the hut, Connor lay still. She picked up his right hand, and he flinched. It was the first physical reaction she’d seen from him. Good. He might live after all. It looked as though someone had smashed a mallet against the fingers. The same treatment had been applied to his right wrist.
Such unusual wounds. If his enemy had wanted him dead, a simple arrow or dagger through the heart would suffice. This was a punishment, it seemed. Connor had no weapons, which suggested he had been a prisoner. They had discarded him in the midst of a field, and were it not for Lorcan’s interference, Connor might be there still.
She needed to set the bones properly. As she looked through her supply of wooden splints for the right shape and size, her thoughts returned to Rhiannon. Love filled her at the thought of her sweet-faced girl. She could not imagine life without her.
No one would take Rhiannon from her. Especially not Connor MacEgan, the man who had fathered her.
From the book: The Warrior’s Touch
Copyright Â© 2007 by Michelle Willingham
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