Caoimhe bit her lip and forced the question plaguing her mind. "Will ye truly send the lasses back to Lady Gormal's clutches?"
The young laird, a man she had watched grow from a too thin, frightened lad who was afraid of his own shadow and terrified of speaking more than a pair of words at one time might he shame himself, stared pensively at her sleeping daughter.
A daughter likewise carrying a great fear within her, clutched about her as if it were a second skin.
She could understand the deception, Ceana marrying Ethan to assure his wee brother be returned and fear for her own life pushing her.
And she could see how Ethan's trusted guards would wish this quiet lass as his bride rather than the demanding Sorsha.
But the choice they had made had been a mistake, one that would be imprinted on Ethan's mind and heart for years to come.
Perhaps it was mother's intuition, or maybe simply wishful thinking, Caoimhe felt in her bones if the pair could get past the deception, a love between them could blossom and grow, and heal all the hurts and betrayals which each had suffered.
Yet wishing on her part did nothing for Ethan and Ceana.
Her heart was a painful knot within her breast. Nay, the laird would have to forgive his wife, and she would have to forgive herself, before any trust, or love, could grow.
So lost in her musings she started when Ethan reached a hand out and brushed a wisp of hair off Ceana's forehead.
Oh, aye, the lad cared for her already, and she knew from her observations of Ceana that she also cared deeply for her husband.
Not taking his eyes off his bride, he spoke. "In light of all ye've t-told me, Caoimhe, I w-will have to give the matter of Ceana and Sorsha more thought." He turned his steel gray eyes to her. "Whilst at the moor, I had t-told Diarmad I w-would be sending the lasses to Balvack to live, Lady Gormal overheard and claimed she w-was not Sorsha's mother. At that moment a messenger came and told us of their capture, and I could not question her further."
His lip pulled into a half smile. "Apparently she spoke the truth."
Caoimhe could not gauge what he was thinking. His young, handsome face was void of any emotion. She nodded once, a stiff jerk of her neck, not knowing what, if anything, she should say.
She wanted more than anything for both Ceana and Sorsha to remain here, behind the safe walls that had sheltered her all these years.
She shuddered to think what would happen to the lasses if he did send them back. If Lady Gormal still lived, it mattered not a good man, such as Diarmad, was the new laird.
Lady Gormal would make her daughter's life unbearable.
Considering she had now disclaimed Sorsha as her own, that daughter would suddenly experience what Ceana had lived through the whole of her life.
The heavy oak chamber door burst open and Caoimhe quickly covered her head.
Lady Sileas stood in the threshold, her hair coming out of its braid and her eyes wild.
Two guards hovered behind her, looking at Ethan helplessly.
Caoimhe's heart sank.
The laird would never let her daughters remain within these walls if the Lady Sileas did not wish it.
Sileas pointed a trembling finger to the bed. "Why did ye bring them back?"
Ethan motioned for Caoimhe to take his place sitting at the edge of the bed. On legs suddenly too weak to hold her, she sat, keeping her hooded head down.
He moved to his mother and wrapped his arms around her while she cried.
"Shh, Ma," he soothed. "Wee Sionn is h-home safe now, ye need not w-worry anymore."
She sniffed and Caoimhe's heart went out to her. The woman had had a hard life. Her mind was weak, and as of late, becoming weaker.
"I ken he is safe now!" she cried. "But why did ye bring those lasses back within our walls? Ye don't need them anymore, ye should have let the Vikings keep them!"
The venom in her words made Caoimhe wince and she instinctively picked up Ceana's ice-cold hand and rubbed it between her own, which were in truth, not much warmer.
She hoped the draught she gave her was strong enough to keep her sleeping whilst Ethan's mother was here. She did not wish her Ceana to witness the anger coming off the woman in waves.
"Mother," Ethan said, his voice strained. "It has been explained to ye w-why Ceana lied about who she was and married me. She feared for Sionn, Ma, she w-was trying to protect him and see to it h-he be returned home by marrying me."
Her voice rang out with frustration, "I don't care!"
He continued speaking despite her outburst, his breathless, halting words desperate to sooth his mother, his face strained and flushed with the effort he made to control his stutter. Caoimhe's heart wrenched, knowing that although he did not fear taunting from his mother, or herself, his halted speech still embarrassed him greatly. "Sorsha h-had nay part in the deception when she arrived here, she did not k-ken who she w-was or where she came from, Ma. Even if she had not lost h-her memoires, she had nay choice in her father's decree she marry me in order to h-have Sionn returned to us."
There was a swishing of material and Caoimhe guessed Lady Sileas pulled out of her son's embrace.
"Why are ye defending them?" she demanded.
Ethan sighed. "Ma, I just explained w-why," he said his voice soft and caring despite the breathlessness that accompanied his stutter. "They are h-here, and will remain so until I can decide w-what is best for all. Ye h-have nay reason to w-wish either lass ill."
Relief filled Caoimhe's eyes with tears. He would not send her daughters away, at least not yet. And, despite his mother's wishes.
There was a scraping of feet against rushes and Caoimhe turned in time to see Lady Sileas break the hold her son had on her upper arms and make her way to the bed.
Caoimhe stood, placing herself between the angry woman and the sleeping girl.
"Lady Sileas," Caoimhe began, choosing her words carefully. "It has been a long journey for ye, from the time wee Sionn was taken to now, and ye need rest. Let me take ye back to ye chamber, I will fix ye a drink to help ye relax."
Her eyes, unclear and frightened, seemed to search hers, even though Caoimhe knew she could not truly see her eyes under the deep hood. "I don't want the lasses here, in my home."
The words shot spears through Caoimhe's heart, but were so pitifully spoken, she could not hate her for them.
Caoimhe took both her hands into hers and rubbed them slowly. "Tell me why, My Lady," she asked softly. "I ken ye understand all that happened with the lasses, the deceit was never meant to hurt, but to help. Yet ye are determined to see them ousted, especially Ceana, will ye not tell me why?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ethan move to stand by the hearth. She could sense by the stiff set of his shoulders and the way his head was cocked he wished his mother to answer her questions as much as she did.
Lady Sileas sank to her knees into the rushes. Ethan moved to come to her and Caoimhe shook her head, halting his steps.
Caoimhe knelt in front of her, not releasing her hold on her hands.
Tears ran in a stream down Sileas cheeks as she raised ravished eyes to her. "She reminds me of myself." The words came out an anguished whisper. "When I look into her eyes, I see the terrors of my own past, from when I was under The MacLean's thumb and I can't bear it. To this day my husband haunts my dreams. I fear I will see him, or his evil son Aodh, around each corner I turn."
Sileas grip tightened painfully, yet Caoimhe did not pull away.
"Don't ye understand?" she cried. "As long as my husband lives, I still belong to him. He could find me, take me back, I can't go back, healer, I can't!"
Ethan knelt behind his mother and wrapped his strong arms around the weeping woman, his dark head rested atop hers, his knees bracketed her swaying form.
Caoimhe met Ethan's eyes for a pregnant moment, she read the anguish, confusion and helplessness within the storm gray depths and her heart pinched for him. Carefully, she released Sileas' hands, her own heart breaking for more reasons than she could contemplate at the moment, and stood.
She checked on Ceana one more time, assuring herself her daughter still slept, then, with one more glance at the kneeling couple she stepped into the drafty hall and pulled the heavy door closed behind her.
The chances of Ethan allowing the lasses to remain now that he knew why their presence hurt his mother so much were all but none.
Caoimhe would lose her daughters for the second time. There was nay way she would be allowed within the walls of the Moor of Balvack. Even with Diarmad as laird, he could not stop Lady Gormal from slaying her the moment she set eyes on Caoimhe again.
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