~Ræliksen- Book One of the Emerald Isle Trilogy~
The thunder rolled like hundreds of cavalry horses across a battlefield, shaking the ground as it passed above, until suddenly the Heavens opened, and without mercy, dumped its water in sheets.
The rain was bitterly cold and Dægan relished the feel of Mara huddled into his back. She buried her face within his wet hair, as if finding a small refuge between his shoulder blades.
He couldn’t ignore the warmth and softness of her body against him for the thin tunic and shift she was wearing left little to the imagination. The thought clung to him like a wet blanket, drenched with his own lustful musings as he considered what she would feel like without the nuisance of clothing. What he would touch first if only she would allow it.
Dægan cursed the timing of those indecent thoughts, and clutched her arms that surprisingly held fast to his waist, reassuring her that cover was just a bit further. The shelter he promised was something he had seen only once, near the river on his way to Connacht several days before. He hoped that his memory served him correctly as he navigated through the onslaught of needle-like rain in his face.
Several times the horse slipped and Mara’s arms tightened around him, a pleasure he gladly took amidst the situation. What’s more, they were descending a slope much steeper than he expected, and the rain only added to its difficulty as it shrouded the rocks that lay loose on the black slated ground.
Dægan didn’t need to worry about her ability to ride for he had experienced first hand her abilities yesterday morning, and didn’t hesitate to lunge the horse from the incline and drive it faster to where he thought the cavern would be.
And like a gift from Odin, there it was!
Although further from the river than he’d like, the overhang was hospitable and tall enough even for his horse, something he thanked the gods for upon entering. Their stop within the shallow depths of the cave was abrupt and only the tiny echoes of water dripping, crooned an appeasing welcome as they relished the sudden end of the chastising rain. The horse stood panting and its slick black body steamed as it cooled.
“Are you all right?” Dægan asked, his deep voice resonating within the cavern walls.
“Aye,” Mara shuddered, still trying to absorb the warmth from his back.
“We must get you warm.” Dægan slid from his horse, landing on both feet. His arms reached for her and without hesitation she wrapped herself around his neck, evidently too cold to care what protective limbs she was enveloped in. He smiled for she was like a little child burying her head against his neck, contrary to the fiery vixen from yesterday’s affair. He leaned his head toward her, feeling the warmth of her breath and savoring the petal soft lips upon his neck. He truly didn’t want to let go of her, but her shivering broke the moment, bringing him back from his heavenly Valhalla.
He shifted her weight to one arm while he untied the hide with the other, shaking it out to cover her. “Take off your wet clothes and then you can have my cloak.”
She reacted as if his words seared through her like a red hot brand. “I most certainly will not!”
“You cannot get warm in sodden clothing,” he proclaimed.
“I will do no such thing!” she said, jumping from his arms and keeping the hide for herself.
“Listen, princess,” Dægan retorted, beginning to take off his belt and boots. “You, above all, should know this rain will be holding us here for many hours, if not days. I am not going to sit in wet, uncomfortable clothes when I have perfectly dry blankets at my exposal. And I suggest you follow my lead.”
Mara hadn’t long to contemplate Dægan’s sudden foul language or his candid advice before he had completely disrobed.
“Oh, my goodness!” she gasped, turning her head away from his nakedness.
“You might as well get used to it, my lady. Soon you will be seeing me this way every night.”
“I will not!” Mara argued over her shoulder.
“Will you close your eyes to me even on our wedding night?”
“You are a stupid heathen of a man!” she retorted. “How can you possibly think that I will want to marry you?”
“I felt the tides turning last night—and so did you.”
“Your problem is that you hardly trust yourself. You despise that you gave in to me so quickly, and for that you question your own good sense. Your heart is talking to you but you won’t listen. You are denying yourself the chance to find love, a love that is different, foreign, and well beyond your dreams. I saw how you would gaze upon the river waters in Connacht, looking further than its shores, wishing for something greater. And now ‘tis here in front of you, yet you fear the possibility of its wonder because ‘tis simply not what your father wants. Tell me Mara, what do you want?”
His poetic words coursed a path straight to her chest, almost knocking the wind from her. “You watched me?” she asked, her voice breaking as it inflated with shock and anger.
Though she couldn’t see his face, she heard a slight sense of guilt in his voice. “Aye, for many days,” he admitted.
“Weeks, actually. I came upon your singing one morning and ‘twas the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Your voice was like the sweetness of honey on my tongue. It lingered and I could not rid its hold on me. I took pleasure in watching the simple life you were living and found myself wanting to offer you more. And each afternoon when you would ride away, I was left with a feeling of utter sadness. I despised that feeling and decided that I would not walk away from you any longer.”
Mara gritted her teeth and tightened the hide at her shoulders as if to further screen herself from his viewing. “No matter how charming a tale you tell, you are still a thief if you take me not to my father!”
Dægan grabbed the other hide from his saddle and slapped it around his waist. “If I do that, I will put both our lives at risk, you know this! And by the gods, woman, turn around!”
Mara peeked her head slightly over her shoulder, fully expecting him to still be naked. But he was covered, eyes tapered to slits and his hands on his narrow hips. The reddish hide hung low at his waist exposing his entire torso. It was longer than she imagined but just as well, for she had never seen an unclothed man before. His chest was relatively bare, exposing two small nipples and a thin layer of dark blond curls at his navel that ran down beyond the obscurity of the animal skin.
His gruff voice promptly interrupted her subtle inspection. “I will take full responsibility for my theft if the time arises, but until then, I will keep you safe, first and foremost!”
Mara shook away the lingering thoughts of his unforgettable body and was glad to see that he finally admitted his actions to being that of a thief, proving that even beautiful men could be criminals.
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