On Friday, I wrote the final words to the fourth book in the Castle Keepers series. Healing Stones came to 142,169 words. Obviously, it won’t stay that count; editing and revisions will change it, but not drastically. If all goes as planned, the book will be released in September 2019.
Healing Stones focusses on the remaining members of The Mercenaries after the brutal battle at the end of Revelation Stones. They set out to find Liam Jenkins, Isla’s friend from her youth, the boy who she pledged to unite with when she was only twelve years old.
The theme of the book is healing, healing the body, the mind and relationships that have been torn apart by time and deeds.
Below is the first chapter. It’s still in its draft form, so there maybe mistakes, and it will undoubtably change by the time it’s published.
The sun had been up for more than three hours, yet it had hidden behind billowy white clouds most of the day, stealing heat from the land and casting much of it in shadow. The cool temperatures forced Isla of Maura to pull her jacket from her saddle bag and put it on. She didn’t bother buttoning it; it was a warm day with a chill that would depart as soon as the sun peeked from behind the clouds. She’d be warmer if she could do something other than stand next to the cold fire pit and listen to McGuigan and Lyneth argue about the best route into Moonsface.
The obvious way, the one that took them directly into the large village on Blue Myst River, was the one McGuigan wanted to take, but Lyneth, who had been to Moonsface many times in the past, insisted they take the narrow path around the collection of knolls. It’d add at least an hour to their time. Isla didn’t care which course they took; she only wanted to mount her two-bit horse she’d bought from money earned from tedious work and get moving. If they argued for another ten minutes, they’d have already travelled half way through the long way.
“Everyone travels the main road.” Lyneth, a woman of both human and elf blood, stood taller than McGuigan. “It’s not safe.”
“You’ve said that.” McGuigan Mulryan, who thought he should lead the party of three, stood on his toes to add height to his dwarf size. “It’s a waste of time.”
“I’ll tell you what’s a waste of time,” said Isla, throwing her arms into the air, “arguing.” They glared at her, and she hung her head. Lyneth was older, wiser about The Trail and had travelled this area of Ath-o’Lea before; she should lead the excursion. McGuigan’s male ego prevented him from accepting these facts. She was youngest, least experienced, yet she was the one who’d chosen their destination: Wandsworth.
After spending six weeks at Maskil recovering and reacquainting herself with home, they’d set out for the large city with the hope of finding her long-lost friend, Liam Jenkins. He’d been sent there more than six years earlier after his das had been killed. His meeme had been murdered on the journey, leaving the boy, only thirteen years old then, to live with his aunt and uncle, relatives he’d never met.
To finance their journey, they’d taken three packages with them, ones that needed to be delivered discreetly to shops in Moonsface. Lyneth, being the more experienced fighter, carried those packages in her rucksack.
The argument circled around to what had already been discussed, and Isla huffed and dropped to the large rock to sit and wait out the debate. Hearing a noise in the bushes, she looked over to where the horses stood. She blinked, bringing the scene into focus. Someone mounted hers, kicked it in the side and raced off towards Wandsworth.
She leapt onto McGuigan’s horse and raced after the cloaked figure. For five weeks, she’d tolerated her aunts’ teasing and comments about her wardrobe to earn the money to get that horse; no one was going to steal it from her. She kicked McGuigan’s horse, making it run, but her horse was faster and quickly out-paced her. They raced for a good five minutes until she feared she’d lose the money she’d invested in the animal. She cursed under her breath, dreading the idea of having to work again to get another.
When she rounded a corner, she brought McGuigan’s horse to a sudden halt, sliding and spraying dirt into the air before the gang that blocked the road. Her eyes grew wide as she realised she’d ridden into a trap. Ready to change direction and flee, she saw the man who’d taken her horse baulk and look for an escape route. Feeling trapped, he stopped the horse and put his hands in the air.
“I mean no harm.” The man’s voice quivered, and he flung the cloak from his head, revealing his long brown hair tinted with shimmering green. The young elf glanced nervously between Isla and the four heavily-armed men and their bulky horses that blocked his path.
“Except you stole my horse,” yelled Isla, weary of the large humans leering down at her. She prepared to bolt if the exchange went badly.
“A horse thief.” The human with black hair, a healthy tan and a deep scar that ran from his left eye brow to his cheek smirked. “Interesting. But not what we seek.”
“It’s what I seek.” She put her foot on the young elf and gave him a shove, knocking him out of the saddle. He hit the ground hard, sending clouds of dust into the air. She grabbed the reins of her horse and turned. “Thanks for blocking his path.” She started away, hoping they’d let her leave without dispute.
“A moment, please.” The man with the scar spoke in a harsh tone, yet one that didn’t appear threatening.
She half turned. “It’s all I have.”
“We seek someone. Perhaps you’ve seen him…being a hauflin yourself.”
“Who do you seek?” She waited as he allowed the appropriate amount of time to pass to keep her in suspense.
“A male. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Young, like yourself. Maybe you passed him on your journey”
“The hauflin men I’ve met on The Trail were at least twice my age. Where’s he from?”
“I know no one from Wandsworth. This is the first time I’ve been to Moonsface, and I haven’t gotten there yet.” She frowned at the boy who dusted the dirt from his trousers. “Thanks to this thief.” She prepared to leave, not wanting to waste more time talking with these strangers who rose the hairs on the back of her neck. His description of a male hauflin matched most she’d met, including Arthur. The young hauflin brushed her mind, and she forced him out. She searched for another who had strummed her heart strings long ago, and she’d not know who to sing for until she’d found Liam and listened to his song.
The man chuckled. “Moonsface awaits then. Safe travels.”
She nodded and started back to McGuigan and Lyneth. Once out of sight of the four men, she brought the horses to a canter, hoping to put distance between her and them. Although McGuigan might grumble, they were taking the long way to the village.
She saw her friends up ahead, McGuigan on the back of Lyneth’s horse, and she ground to a stop. Leaping from the saddle, she shoved the reins into his hands, then jumped onto her horse.
“Lyneth, lead the way,” she said. McGuigan opened his mouth to protest, but she hushed him. “Four mysterious men travel towards us. Today, the long way is the better way.”
“Told you.” Lyneth gave McGuigan a face, then started back to where they came. She travelled less than a mile, then cut into the narrow trail that led them away from the road.
Isla took up the rear and glanced down the road towards Moonsface as they entered the trail, looking to see if the four men had followed her quick enough to see them. They hadn’t, and she guided her horse into the cover of thick trees and bushes. After a mile, Lyneth slowed, giving the horses a chance to rest as they meandered around boulders and large trees.
“You call this a trail?” asked McGuigan. “I call it a footpath at best.” He glanced back at Isla. “Did those men appear threatening? Did they try to attack?”
“No, but they gave me a bad feeling.”
He huffed. “We’re travelling through the woods because of a bad feeling? It’s going to take forever to get to Moonsface. And it’s more dangerous travelling like this than on the open road.”
“Maybe, but I don’t see four large humans with swords and scars marring their faces here.”
“Yeah. Not the friendly type.”
He settled into the saddle, glancing back at her only once before he fell silent.
The coolness generated by deep shadows forced Isla to button her jacket. She didn’t care about the length of time it took to get to Moonsface; she was only glad they were moving. Although she was eager to reach Wandsworth to find Liam, she enjoyed The Trail, seeing new places and learning about the land they travelled through. For five years, she’d been a prisoner of Blackvale Castle, and the monotony of that time made every trail, every person, ever tree something different to see.
They travelled for less than a mile and came upon a fork in the road. Lyneth took the one on the left, the one that appeared less travelled.
“Where does that go?” asked McGuigan, pointing to the trail not taken.
“Moonsface.” Lyneth didn’t look back.
“Is it shorter?”
“In some ways.”
“What does that mean? Will it take us to Moonsface faster?”
“If we jog the horses.”
McGuigan followed her, but he stared hard at the one on the right. “Both trails are the same distance from the village?”
“You could say it that way.”
“How would you say it?” Frustration laced his voice.
“The same way you would.”
Isla hung her head. The constant bickering between them since they’d left Maskil weeks ago made her think she’d be happier alone on The Trail. Her parents wouldn’t agree, but they didn’t have to put with trail mates who persistently chose opposite opinions. They never had these arguments when Elspeth led the group; no one questioned her authority and if they did, they had a darn good reason to do so. Now, with no one to make the final decision, McGuigan and Lyneth wrestled for it like two mature female goats knocking heads to be the leader of the herd. She’d seen does fight until they’d drawn blood, and they’d go at it again, once the wounds were half healed.
McGuigan fell silent after travelling a few minutes on the path, but when another fork appeared and Lyneth veered left, he stopped.
“Where does this trail go?”
“Moonsface.” Lyneth slowed but didn’t stop.
“Is it faster?”
Isla was forced to stop to avoid bumping into his horse.
“Not really?” McGuigan peered down the trail. “It looks for easier riding. Let’s take it.”
Lyneth stopped. “Do you not trust me to take the best trail into Moonsface?”
“I trust you will take the path that pleases you best, not what’s best for us.”
“I’ve been through here many times and—”
“You’ve said that,” he snapped. “It doesn’t make you an expert. It doesn’t mean we have to listen to you.” He pointed his horse to the right. “I say we go this way. It’s easier.”
Isla cursed under her breath. She’d had enough. Kicking her two-bit horse in the side, she bumped her way past McGuigan and followed Lyneth. “Onward. Let’s go.”
“What?” His mouth hung open. “We’re going this way.”
“From here on, we vote. I’m with Lyneth. Two against one. Now follow or we’ll meet you there.” She ushered Lyneth forward. “We’d be there by now if not for the bickering.”
A smile creased Lyneth’s lips, and her horse walked forward.
McGuigan grumbled, turned his horse and followed. “I thought you were on my side.”
“I’m on the side that gets us there safely and quickly.” Isla glanced at him. “Pip-pip, young man.” She grinned at the words Tam had used to hurry him up. Their time in Maskil had given McGuigan the opportunity to know his uncle, a man with dry humour, simple ways and a quiet manner. The relationship had also instilled confidence and purpose in McGuigan he previously lacked. It made him more outspoken, and in situations like this, more annoying.
“This is the less challenging path,” said Lyneth over her shoulder. “Fewer travels take this route. Trust me.”
“I do,” said Isla before McGuigan spoke. “We both do.”
For the next thirty minutes, they rode in silence with no additional forks to cause problems. Isla relaxed and admired the landscape, the lush trees, tiny bunches of wildflowers and the birds singing sweet songs. A squirrel ran in front of her horse and into a small bush. It emerged out the other side, and she watched it race towards an unusual tree. She stared at the mammoth growth; it was unlike anything thing she’d seen before. Relaxing her grip on the reins, she slowed the horse.
Broad, dark green leaves obscured the top of the tree starting five feet above the ground. Or was it trees, a group of them growing closely together? Countless trunks rose from the ground, both thick and thin. The maze they created provide perfect protection from the elements and an interesting place to spend the night; she could tuck herself within them and no one passing by would see her. As she rode nearer, she marvelled at the roots squirming from the main trunks, gliding across the ground as if a nest of snakes of various size protruded from the wood.
She tilted her head, trying to make sense of the branches… No, roots growing from the outstretched branches. They grew at different stages, some only a few inches long, others almost reaching the ground. Spell bound, she directed her horse off the trail and onto the forest bed covered in yellow needles.
“Why are you stopping?” growled McGuigan. “We don’t have time for sightseeing.”
“Why are you so eager to get to Moonsface?” asked Lyneth, who stopped to wait.
“With you, there’s always a reason.”
“Oh, it’s something. Fess up, young man.”
Frustrated, he blurted, “I want to get rid of those packages.”
“You’re nervous.” She shook her head. “Don’t think of them.”
“I can’t help it. You heard the warning.”
“The same I’ve been hearing for more than seven years.”
He huffed. “Back when we had the strength to defend ourselves.”
“You mean The Mercenaries.” She cleared her throat, and her expression softened. “We’re almost there. Stick to the plan, and we’ll be fine.”
“Shhh!” Isla dismounted and let her reins fall.
“What are you doing?” asked McGuigan. “It’s just a tree.”
“You ever see a tree like this?” she asked over her shoulder. She stepped closer. A soft mumble or… What was that sound?
“It’s the Nathair tree.” Lyneth rested her arms across the horn of her saddle.
“Nat hair?” McGuigan grimaced. “Its branches look like dangling hair.”
“Nath-air. And those aren’t branches. They’re roots. As it was explained to me, off shoots of the branches droop or grow downward and set new roots into the ground. This is a single tree and those trunks are roots grown from the branches.”
“Strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” said McGuigan.
“That’s not the strangest,” said Isla, walking closer. “It’s humming or…” she glanced back, “groaning. It smells odd, and…” she peered closer, and her hair stood on end, “it emits negative energy.”
“It’s a tree.” McGuigan sat up and gathered his reins. “Let’s go.”
Her hand touched one of the branches, and her fingers tingled. Stepping between the woven roots, she peaked into the cavity of the clump of trunks. It was large enough for a medium size animal or a dwarf to lay down comfortably.
Her ears perked. What was that?
She stood straight. “Hello?”
“Who you talking to?” McGuigan stretched his neck to see.
“I think there’s someone in here.”
“In the tree? Crazy.”
She stared at him, her mind unfolding memories created long ago. “Your uncle Tam was stuck in a tree for years.”
“Okay. Well, that doesn’t mean there’s someone in every tree.”
“Please, help me.” The voice, barely audible, sounded in pain.
Isla stepped closer, searching around the branches, roots and trunks. “Where are you?”
She stood on a thick root and poked her head between the branches. A dark set of eyes gaped out at her from deep within the tangled branches. She tried to see more of the person, but only a narrow slit revealed the position. “Can you hear me?”
“I see you.” It was a man’s voice.
“How did you get in there?”
Confused, she asked, “How long have you been here?”
She pulled back. He’d be dead in a few more.
“What is it?” asked McGuigan.
“A man. Lyneth, what do you know about this?”
Lyneth dismounted and came near. “What is it?”
“He’s trapped, or… How would he get out?”
She scanned the area. “I can’t see how he got in.” She stepped off the root and checked along the side.
Isla grabbed a branch and yanked on it, but it was solid. “I’ll never break it.” She kicked at a branch, but it didn’t budge. “What do you make of it?”
Lyneth scratched her head. “There’s no entry. No opening to reach him. Did he say how he got in there?”
“He said he fell asleep. Doesn’t make sense.” She poked her face near the hole and gazed at the stranger. “Did you crawl in there?”
“No. The tree…” he gasped for breath, “grew around me.”
“It grew around him?” She drew back. “Crazy.”
“Let’s go,” said McGuigan.
She stared at him. “What? We can’t leave him.”
“Not like we can help him.” He leant forward and whispered, “He’s probably been put there for a reason.”
Lyneth considered the tree. “He might be right. I don’t know how to get him out. We could send someone back for him.”
“He could be dead by then.” Isla’s mind raced. There had to be a way. “We can’t just leave him.”
“I know you want to help, but we can’t help everyone.” Lyneth took a step towards her horse. “McGuigan could be right in this instance; maybe someone put him there for a good reason.”
She swung around and stared at the tree. If he was a bad man, then the tree would claim him, but what if he wasn’t? Her emotions fought against each other, trying to sort out the right thing to do. She could easily walk away, forget about the man, but…something tugged at her. Just like when she found Willow in the dungeon at Vale of Avoca, she couldn’t walk away. But how would she release him?
If it was only a tree, then she could cut it. She withdrew her dagger and stood on the thick root. The blade struck the branch near the opening, and the entire tree shook. She hit it again, and the tree shook harder.
Something wrapped around her ankle. A snake? A branch. It tightened its hold and curled around her calf. “Whoah!” She stabbed it with her dagger. It flinched and uncurled. “What the…”
“Watch out!” McGuigan jumped off his horse and raced forward, his sword drawn. The dangling branch swooped towards her, and he cut it in half. “Get out of there!”
She jumped up, but another root grabbed her ankle and dragged her across the ground. Dirt and needles flew into her face, blinding her momentarily. Holding tight to the dagger, she stabbed the root repeatedly until it released her. She jumped to her feet and saw McGuigan and Lyneth both battling roots that shot out from several branches. Grabbed around both ankles, she slammed into the ground, loosing the grip on the dagger. She scrambled to retrieve it, but her hand slammed against dirt as she was dragged away.
Screaming filled her ears, but in the rush to reach the dagger strapped to her thigh, she couldn’t see what was happening. The root threw her against a trunk and pinned her twenty feet in the air. Unable to reach her weapon, she pounded the tree with her fist, then kicked it. Wiggling and pushing against the trunk, she found enough room to grasp the dagger.
The tree released more roots and branches, removing some of the bonds that held the man trapped within it. Isla gazed down at him. His small size suggested he was either a boy of the dwarf race or a hauflin.
The tree shook violently, and branches flew rapid about, trying to entrap those who attacked it. Leaves slapped against her as she leapt from one branch to the next. Roots that snagged her were quickly cut away. Branch by branch, she shortened the distance between her and the stranger. The tree exposed him further, and more branches lashed out at her. They knocked her off balance, and she fell until she latched onto a branch. Unable to secure her hands, she slipped farther, and landed on a branch beside the man’s head. The top half of him had been exposed. He was hauflin.
A branch swept towards her, and she ducked in time to avoid it. “Your hands!” she yelled. “Are they free?”
McGuigan slammed into the roots in front of her. “Get away from here! Leave him!” He swung his sword and lopped off the end of a branch. “Its too much.”
Isla shook the man’s shoulder. “Can you reach up?”
Dry evergreen needles, dirt and bruises covered the man’s gaunt face. His shaggy, dirty, damp hair stuck to his skin as if glued there. His torn shirt revealed scratches and minor cuts. Maybe McGuigan was right; this man was placed here for a reason, and those who put him here had put a beaten on him first.
Pain raced across his young face as he wiggled his arms free from his side and lifted them into the air. “Help me.”
“Leave him!” ordered McGuigan. “We can’t save him. We’ll be lucky…” a branch slapped him across the face, “to save ourselves.” He ducked when the next branch flew towards him.
It struck Isla and flung her against a thick trunk. She hit with a solid thud, and it knocked the air from her lungs.
“Come on.” McGuigan reached for her. “Hold onto me.”
She scrambled to her feet and leapt onto a branch near the man. Part of her wanted to listen to McGuigan, but the other part couldn’t leave this man.”
“Grab my hand!” McGuigan cut down another branch. “Let’s go!” He latched onto her and jerked her forward.
“Please, don’t leave me… Isla!”
She froze and swung around, releasing McGuigan. How did he know her name?
“Please, I don’t want to die.” He reached for her with one hand and pushed against the tree with the other.
She grabbed the dirty hand and pulled. “Help me!”
McGuigan grasped the man’s wrist and pulled him out of the tight hole he stood in. The quick discharge made him stumble forward and lose his balance. He fell against a series of roots and tore a hole in his trousers.
Isla tumbled backwards, dragging the man with her. His thin frame fell across her, and the strong smell of body odour swept through her air passages. In the dank aroma, she detected something familiar, but… She pushed him off and scrambled to her feet, dagger in hand. A branch struck her across the face, and she flew into the man, sending him flat on his back.
“This way.” Lyneth stood before the tree, ducking the flying branches and cutting down those that came near.
“Come on.” McGuigan grabbed Isla’s jacket and pulled her to her feet. He turned and chopped off a branch as it swung near.
Isla drove her dagger into her sheath and reached for the stranger. He struggled to stand and appeared too weak to carry himself. She helped him up and draped his arm across her shoulder. They lurched forward with McGuigan following close behind, cutting the branches that flayed out.
Thirty feet from the tree, the branches couldn’t reach them. Isla forced the man to travel farther down the trail until he collapsed into the moss. He coughed and sputtered, gasping for air and moaning in pain.
McGuigan led his and Isla’s horses down the path and stopped near her feet. “We’re not staying.”
Lyneth followed close behind. “I agree,” she said with ragged breath. “We need to get away from that thing.”
“Finally, you agree on something.” Isla rose to her feet and looked back at the tree, breathing deeply to gather loss breath. “Help me get him up.”
“Up where?” McGuigan eyed the filthy man that lay before him and plugged his nose. “He stinks.”
“You’d smell better after being trapped in a tree for three days?” She placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Hey. You going to be okay?”
He slowly raised his head and propped himself up on his elbows. Through strands of thick brown hair, he stared at her. “That depends on you.” He coughed and moved his mouth as if to gather spit.
“Water.” She grabbed the flask from her saddle. “He’s had nothing to drink for three days.” She helped him sit up, then removed the cork. A familiar scent swirled in the air, and she leant closer as he lifted the flask to his mouth. “You…” Her gaze swept over his face, then stared into his deep brown eyes, eyes she’d seen before.
“Don’t get too close,” said McGuigan. “You might never get rid of that smell.”
She brushed dirty strands of hair from his face, and her emotions ran wild. His hair was longer, his jaw more pronounced than in his youth and his thin facial hair concealed the wee scar on his chin, but his eyes were the same. “Liam?”
Uncertainly consumed him, and he gripped the flask tightly. His eyes grew glossing, and the little colour he had in his face drained. “I’m him.” His voice shook as if he didn’t want to admit it.
“Liam?” Lyneth leant close. “The Liam? The one we’re going to Wandsworth to find?”
“The same.” She scrutinised his body. His thin shirt and trousers were speckled with gashes and holes. The dirt and calluses on his feet indicated he wore no foot wear. A dark blue stone shone above his button shirt, the same stone she’d fashioned into a necklace many years ago. There was no doubt this was the man she sought, but he looked as though he’d escaped from five years in prison at Blackvale Castle. He was nothing but bones. Three days trapped in a tree hadn’t done this. “Are you ill? A disease?”
“I told you not to get too close,” said McGuigan.
“No. I am well.” He choked on the words, and it took a minute for him regain his composure.
She snatched a wad of cheese from her saddle bag and handed it to him. “Eat.”
He hesitatingly accepted the food, then watched her as he ate it slowly. Once the taste filled his mouth, he chewed quickly and took another bite.
“When was the last time you ate?” She held the flask while he consumed the food.
He shrugged. “Four, five days.”
“Where did you come from? Moonsface?”
“I passed through.”
“Wandsworth?” When he nodded, she released an unbelievable groan. “You’ve walked from there? It would have taken weeks. Why did you leave?”
“I came looking for you.”
She studied his actions. He seemed to be telling the truth, but there was hesitation. “Why now after all these years?”
“Something told me you were…” He thought before he spoke further. “The last I heard, you were taken from Maskil. I had lost hope.” He swallowed and absorbed the pain. “Something… I don’t know. My hope returned.”
“I spent five years in a prison.” She jerked her thumb in McGuigan’s direction. “He’s the reason I escaped.”
“You owe him?”
“That’s been paid in full.” She gave the past year and a bit some thought. She and McGuigan had come to terms with their relationship. They were friends, comfortable with each other enough to kiss if they wanted to, but… She reflected on her and Liam’s past; they had not only kissed but pledged to unite.
“And now you are…?”
“Friends. Good friends. Maybe even best friends.”
“Best friends.” He let the words slip out as if remembering the time when she had called him her best friend. “I’m happy for you.” He didn’t appear happy; his appearance suggested anything but.
“Can we talk about this elsewhere?” asked Lyneth.
“He can eat on the way,” said McGuigan.
“Are you strong enough to ride?” Isla offered him another drink, and he took it.
“I think so.”
“He’s not riding with me.” McGuigan stepped back.
“He’ll ride with me.” Isla corked the flask and returned it to her saddle. “Help me get him up.”
“I’m not touching him,” said McGuigan.
“Your attitude is starting to grate my nerves.” Isla gripped her fists. “Lose it.”
“Or else.” She stared him down. “Help me get him up.” She turned to Liam. “These are my friends. This pig-headed dwarf with the sassy mouth is McGuigan. This is Lyneth. She’s leading this party.”
“She is not.” McGuigan stood tall.
She reached for Liam’s arm. “Slowly. We’ll get you to a place where you can rest.”
He rose on shaky legs and rubbed his left thigh. “I lost feeling in them yesterday.” He grasped her shoulder. “It’ll take a day or so to get them back.”
“We’ve got lots of time.” She guided him to her horse. “I’ll mount, and they’ll help you up.” After climbing into the saddle, she removed her foot from the stirrup and reached for him. “Easy. McGuigan, give him a hand.”
He mumbled under his breath but helped hoist Liam into the saddle. “Phew.” He stepped away quickly and waved his hand in front of his face. “You’re riding last. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“Same as I did when you soiled your trousers when you tried the Light Spell.”
His mouth clamped shut as the memory passed through his mind. “I’m still riding second.” He jumped onto his horse and got behind Lyneth.
“When you’re ready, we’ll start.” She glanced over her shoulder and when their eyes met, a familiar feeling resurfaced. Memories from long ago brushed her mind, igniting a smile. “I’ve thought of you often, wishing things I thought could never be.” Her gaze fell to his lips; they looked as sweet now as they did when he was thirteen. She sniffed the air. “You do smell bad. Before food, you must take a bath.”
A mischievous grin brightened his face. “I’m sorry. If I had known you were going to find me today, I would have…” The ray of happiness that had lit up his haggard face disappeared, leaving him avoiding eye contact.
“It’s okay. Soap is a marvellous product.” She felt him slip in the saddle, and she brought her hand around to steady him. “Hold on. I don’t want to lose you.” He reached for the back of the saddle. “No, put your arms around my waist.” She grasped his hand to move it forward and felt his thin wrist.
“I shouldn’t.” He held his hands to his chest.
“I’m giving you permission to do so. Please. Before you fall off.”
Slowly he placed his hands on her hips and held them firm. The horse stumbling made him slip again, and he wrapped his arms around farther. He inched closer and pressed against her back, shivering as the heat from their bodies joined.
“Though time and distance separated us, I’m still your friend.” She glanced over her shoulder into his face. “It’s why I came in search of you. Do you still consider me a friend?”
He pressed his lips together as his face twisted in anguish. “I’ve always considered you more than a friend, but I understand. We are only friends.” He looked away, resting his cheek against her back, and fell silent.
When she set out to find Liam, she had imagined several scenarios upon finding him. Her most popular was his smiling face, him sharing memories of their past years and him pulling her into his arms for a kiss that melted away the years and deeds, leaving them lovers and possibly mates. Rescuing him from a beast of a tree and finding him beaten, half starved and reluctant to share information was not one of the situations she visualised.
“Take the less challenging path, she said.” McGuigan grumbled and frowned at her. “It will get us there faster, she said.” He pulled at the material around the hole in his pants. “You both owe me a pair of trousers.”