Slowly the room emptied and Rannoch shifted his feet impatiently and still no one approached us. I stood there shivering in great spasms as the warmth from the fire took the wet from my skin and clothes, until, at last, the place was nearly deserted, dim and quiet, and looking unexpectedly plain. Only myself, the young woman and the musician, who I could now see sitting with his harp in the corner, Rannoch and a group of three other men remained. With a final snarl of impatience, Rannoch left me standing alone to go and join those last three. And then all at once two of them were leaving also and Rannoch once more approached me, with another man at his side.
I was so confused by then, so very nearly at the end of my endurance, in truth, so startled and bewildered by the attack on my emotions, at first I did not realize what had come. Even when my eyes fell upon him, I almost dismissed him as I had all the others, for it did not seem this could be a man of any importance. At first glance he seemed but one other among many, young, neither extraordinarily great nor tall, dressed perhaps more plainly than the others in dark brown leather with none of their glare or glitter, and with his hair, which was ashen brown in color hanging straight and undressed down his back. There had been that in Rannoch’s voice when he spoke of “Laird Aidan” that made me expect I would be brought before some powerful elder of the clan. But this man was surely no older than I. And yet...
Was it his manner that alerted me to the truth, or the insistence of that tremendous, inner knowing? For there was unquestionably something in the way he held himself, a profound, controlled certainty that did not require the benefit of trappings and would, in fact, have made them superfluous. He did not seek to make himself important, he merely was.
“So, Rannoch,” he said in a voice that sounded harsh, “this is the valuable prize?”
“It is the correct woman,” Rannoch drawled in reply, watching Aidan closely, as for some reaction. “I made very certain.”
They spoke in their own tongue, which they did not suppose I could understand. Hastily, I dropped my eyes. I had very few advantages – I had better retain my secrets. I stood there with my heart pounding, wondering... wondering. And I knew the two of them looked at me but the man, Aidan, said nothing and the silence in the room grew heavy and complete.
At last, as if unable to help himself, Rannoch said, “I know you do not approve the plan. But at least you admit the wisdom of acting quickly? To your uncle’s way of thinking...”
“My uncle’s way of thinking, and your plans.” The tone was disparaging, scathing, as if he who spoke was sick to the very death of both. But nay, I could not know how he felt, and surely it was only impatience I sensed. “And I suppose what I wish means nothing at all?”
He did not wait for Rannoch’s reply. Indeed, I do not suppose there would have been one. Instead, he moved toward me swiftly and reached out, an object in his hand that caught the light and glittered wildly. It was a short knife, chased in silver and sharp as a piece of slivered ice, gleaming cold. My eyes were caught by it, fascinated. Even as I stiffened involuntarily, it swooped at me.
With cutting coolness, Aidan said, “I hardly think this is necessary.”
As he spoke, the fingers of his left hand came out and seized mine. With a painful wrench, the knife cut the thongs that bound my wrists; he released me instantly and returned the weapon to his side. Only that... But nay, there was so much more.
For with the touch, brief as it had been, came the full flood of realization. ‘Twas from him the feeling of remembrance that was also discovery came. Here was the feeling I had been holding to, so like comfort, so like the power contained in my dreams and Visions.
I drew back – it was a purely instinctive reaction. He stepped away from me as well. And, caught by the light from the fire, made bright and shining by his movement, I saw it: the heavy, silver emblem he wore on his shoulder, the only thing that graced his plain clothes. It was not like the insignia of the other warriors – this leaped out at me, its mirrored surface throwing its form into stark relief. A bird, it was, with its wings spread, strong and bold and savage, soaring. A battle hawk or – no, a raven. A raven poised to strike, its cruel beak open and its talons reaching.
With simple astonishment then, with compulsion that surpassed my circumstances, the time of place, I caught my breath and raised my eyes to his face for the first time. I sought the impossible there, but I think I already knew wha