When a Laird Takes a Lady
Claimed by the Highlander #2
May 6, 2014
In the Highlands of Scotland, honor and loyalty are worth more than life itself. But when a haunted woman meets a wronged warrior, love will prove more powerful than anything they have ever known.
Isabail Grant has had to be strong all her life. Over the years, she has lost everyone close to her, and now she’s seeking justice for her brother’s murder. But en route to Edinburgh to petition the king, she is kidnapped by a fierce warrior—and is shocked to find herself irresistibly drawn to her captor.
Aiden MacCurran is an outlaw. The laird of a small clan, he’s been falsely accused of killing the king’s courier and stealing the Crown’s property—and the key to clearing his name and redeeming his clan lies in Isabail’s memories. But Aiden and Isabail must first weather deceit and treachery before they can find the truth and claim the love that’s growing between them.
The Eastern Highlands Above Lochurkie Castle
Perched atop a huge black-and-white warhorse, Isabail had an unimpeded view of the destruction. Six of her guards, including the valiant Sir Robert, lay lifeless on the moonlit trail. The others had been forced to their knees and tightly bound like cattle. A pair of chests, packed with her belongings, had been rifled and the contents scattered. The men who had attacked her party had gathered only a few items, mostly simple gowns and practical shoes. The more expensive items—those intended for her sojourn in the king’s court—lay in careless heaps, trampled in the snow and mud.
Isabail had no sympathy to spare her fine clothes, however. Fear had cinched her chest so tight there was no room for anything else.
Amazingly, the attackers numbered only three. How such a small group had succeeded in defeating the dozen guards that accompanied her carriage, she could not fathom. But defeat them, they had. What they lacked in count, they made up for in size—the fur-cloaked Highland raiders were a mouth-souring blur of towering heights, broad shoulders, and powerful limbs.
Their leader, the dark haired warrior who had demanded her surrender, wore a scowl so thunderous that her belly quailed each time she spied him. Which was often—to her chagrin, his clean shaven face and neatly trimmed hair drew her eyes again and again.
The raiders worked swiftly, their movements spare and deliberate. No pack was left unopened, no chest left unturned. They concluded their pillage in no time and were soon mounted and ready to depart.
Except for the leader.
He scooped a colorful selection of clothing into a pile, removed a flint from the pouch at his belt, and crouched with his back to the wind. With experienced ease, he soon had the pile in flames. Isabail’s fingers clenched in her horse’s rough mane as a sizable portion of her fine wool gowns, white linen sarks, and beaded slippers went up in fiery pyre.
Had she been alone, she would have burst into tears. But her maid’s pale, plump face was turned to her, the older woman’s eyes a silent plea for hope and guidance. Isabail could not give in to the waves of despair pummeling her body. Not now. Not when Muirne needed her to be strong.
The leader eyed the plume of gray smoke drifting its way into the sky, then grabbed the reins of Isabail’s horse and, in a single fluid bound, leapt up behind her. His steely arm slipped around her waist and hauled her into his lap. A short shriek escaped her lips before she could tame it. Instinct urged her to fight for release, to wriggle free and run, but fear held her fast. The man was huge. He could kill her with a solitary blow from one of those massive fists.
Better that she wait for rescue.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. Surely their intent was to ransom her. To sell her back to her cousin for a hefty sum of coin. If she but braved this brute’s inappropriate touch for a short while, Cousin Archibald would pay the ransom, and she would be freed. There was no need to risk life or limb to flee.
Her captor urged the horse forward, leading his small group toward the narrow opening at the end of the ravine. Isabail glanced at the fallen bodies and bound figures of her men, and words spilled from her lips before she could stop them.
“You cannot meant to leave them like this.”
“I do.” His terse response rumbled through his chest, vibrating against her back.
“But large packs of wolves roam these hills.”
He said nothing, just urged his horse into a trot. The winding path up the mountain slope was narrow, but they took it at a relentless pace. Higher and higher they climbed, the horse picking its way around boulders and thick patches of heather. As they traversed a steep ledge, she got a clear view of the moonlit glen and the mist-shrouded castle that was her home.
The folk in the stone fortress below were no doubt going about their usual evening chores, oblivious to the tragedy that had struck her party. How long would it be before the remaining guards were found? Helpless as they were, would they not starve to death, or be torn apart by wild animals?
Isabail chewed her lip.
One of the bearded outlaws riding alongside her caught her eye. “You fret for naught,” he said. “The smoke will draw notice from the castle. Unless the earl’s soldiers are asleep at their posts, your guards will be home by morn.”
Her captor released a derisive snort.
Isabail breathed a sigh of relief, but did not relax. She was struggling to retain her dignity. The upward climb made it extremely difficult to hold herself aloof from the warrior at her back. She did her best to maintain a stiff, ladylike poise, but every time the massive warhorse surged up a steep incline, she collided with her captor’s very solid chest.
It was bad enough that their hips were so intimately connected. She refused to give up any more of her self-respect than was necessary. But as the air thinned and grew colder, the steady warmth he exuded held more and more appeal. Determined to resist, she clutched her beaver cloak about her shoulders and buried her hands in the soft fur. Still, the hours in the saddle and the frigid air began to take their toll. She slipped farther and farther back in the saddle. Several times, she stiffened abruptly when she realized her body had slumped wearily toward the wall of male flesh behind her.
Fortunately, her captor did not seem to notice her lapses. His attention was focused on carving a trail through the bleak wilderness that was the Highlands in January. Perhaps fearing pursuit, he kept their pace as hard and as fast as the terrain would allow.
Isabail was just beginning to wonder how far he intended to drag her from her home when he drew the massive destrier to a halt and barked out an order to his men. “Make camp here.”
As he leapt down, causing icy air to swirl around her in his absence, she took stock of his chosen campsite. She considered herself born of much hardier stock than her English cousins, but even to her seasoned Scot’s eye, the spot looked anything but hospitable. Barren rock, blanketed by a thin layer of ice and snow. The only break to the north wind was a large boulder and, in the distance, a tall standing stone erected by the ancient Picts.
But the lack of obvious comfort did not dismay his men. They helped Isabail and Muirne to dismount, then immediately set about making a fire. Once the peat bricks were generating some heat, they tethered the horses and passed around meager portions of bread and cheese. The meal was too late to be supper and too early to be breakfast, but it tasted wonderful just the same.
Isabail and Muirne were left alone as the men went about their tasks. The ground was icy beneath their boots, discouraging movement, so they simply stood and ate. Muirne’s thoughts had not eased on the long ride up the mountain. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “They mean to rape and kill us,” she whispered.
“How can you know that?” asked Isabail. “They’ve not made any such threats.”
“You need only to look at the dark face on that one”—she pointed to the towering shape of the leader as he unsaddled the horses—“to know that we are doomed.”
Isabail’s stomach knotted. Muirne’s assessment had merit. Everything about the man was terrifying, from the daunting width of his shoulders to the grim set of his chiseled jaw. And her maid was correct—the scowl on his face did not bode well. But to admit the bend of her thoughts to Muirne would stir the maid’s fears.
“The only sane reason for them to accost a noblewoman is to ransom her,” she said firmly. “They will not harm us for fear of losing their reward.”
“That may protect you, my lady, but it’ll no protect me,” muttered Muirne. “I’ll no see my Fearghus again. I can feel it in my bones.”
“You are spying a badger where there is only a skunk,” chided Isabail. “The possibility of rescue yet remains. We are still on Grant land.”
Muirne frowned. “How can you be certain? We’ve journeyed several hours beyond sight of the castle.”
Isabail nodded toward the standing stone in the distance. It was too dark to see the Pictish symbols engraved on its surface, but the shape was very familiar. “I recognize that stone. We are but a short distance from the bothy my brother used as a respite stop during lengthier hunts.”
Her maid’s face lit up. “Och! We are saved. We can escape there and await the earl’s men.”
“Nay,” Isabail said sharply. “I will not risk the wrath of these men by attempting an escape. Our best option is simply to wait. They will ransom us soon enough.”
Her harsh tone drew the attention of one of the reivers—the heavy-set fellow with the wiry dark beard. He stopped brushing the horses for a moment and stared at them. Neither woman dared to speak another word until he resumed his task.
“See?” hissed Isabail. “They watch us too closely. Escape is not possible.”
Muirne nodded and sat silent for a time, chewing on her bread and cheese. Although morn was surely only an hour or two away, the reivers laid bedrolls near the fire and offered two of them to the women. Isabail claimed her spot with trepidation. Passing a night under the stars without a tent overhead was disturbing enough, but in the presence of three dangerous men . . . Impossible. Especially with their leader staring at her across the campfire. The flickers of the firelight added bleak shadows to an already stern countenance. His expression left her with the distinct impression that he resented her, though heaven only knew why. She’d seen him for the first time just two days ago, in the orchard. At the time, unaware that he was a villain and a cad, she had silently admired his physical form. Few men of her acquaintance sported such a blatantly muscular body, and he possessed a rather handsome visage for a heathen brute—the sort of sharply masculine features a woman does not soon forget.
He stood suddenly, and Isabail’s breath caught in her chest. By God, he was huge. Dark and powerful, a veritable thunderstorm of a man. He tossed back one side of his fur cloak, revealing a long, lethal sword strapped to his side. Beneath the cloak, she spied a leather jerkin atop a dark lèine and rough leather boots that hugged his calves. His clothing was common enough, but there was something decidedly uncommon about the man.
Perhaps it was the intensity of his glacial blue stare—neither of the other two held her gaze for more than a glance. Or perhaps it was the way he held himself, shoulders loose but firm, like he was a direct descendant of Kenneth MacAlpin himself. Lord of all he surveyed.
He glared at her and drew his sword.
Muirne shrieked, and Isabail’s heart skipped a beat.
But the brute did not advance. With his gaze still locked on Isabail, he returned to his seat before the fire and began to clean his weapon.
It took long moments for Isabail’s heart to resume its regular rhythm. Not one word had been exchanged, but she had felt the weight of his blame as surely as if he’d unleashed a furious diatribe. In his mind, it would seem, she was the cause of his troubles.
Perhaps Muirne was right. Perhaps he had no intention of ransoming her. Perhaps escape was a wiser option after all.
Isabail dove beneath the blankets provided by his men and lay on her side with her back to the fire. The bedroll provided little comfort—the frozen ground dug into her hip and shoulder, and the fire only warmed one side of her body. Her nose and fingers were chilled, but rolling to the other side was not an option. Her nape already tingled under the cold gaze of her captor. Facing him would be unbearable.
“The women are slowing us down,” one of the men muttered. “At this pace, it’ll take another full day to reach Dunstoras.”
Isabail froze. Dunstoras?
“That assumes the earl’s men don’t catch us first,” retorted another.
“You worry for naught,” said their leader crisply. “The earl’s men are a league behind us. They think we’re headed south. We’ll lose them when we turn west and descend into Strath Nethy.”
Nausea rolled in Isabail’s belly. Dunstoras was home to the MacCurrans—the clan whose chief had robbed the king and murdered her brother. The same chief who had escaped Lochurkie’s dungeon and absconded to parts unknown. If the man seated across the fire was Aiden MacCurran, she was in far more dire straits than she had thought. A murderous traitor to the Crown would hardly follow the unwritten rules of hostage taking.
She lay stiff and silent, unable to sleep.
MacCurran deserved to pay for his crimes. John had been a fine man and a good earl—far more noble and worthy than her father had been. If only she could escape, she could ensure MacCurran was brought to justice. From the standing stone, she could find her way to the hunt bothy with ease—she and John had stopped there a dozen times over the years.
The challenge was getting away from MacCurran and his men. It might be possible for one of the women to sneak away, but two? Unlikely. Yet she could hardly leave Muirne behind. No, if an escape was to be made, it would be both of them or neither of them.
Taming a Wild Scot
Claimed by the Highlander #1
November 5, 2013
In the Highlands of Scotland, plays for power are fought without rules, treachery and intrigue hold court, and, in one woman’s heart, danger stirs as relentlessly as passion…
Wrongfully accused of murder and left to die in a hellish Highland dungeon, Ana Bisset has lost all hope of freedom. But the beautiful healer’s luck takes an unexpected turn when a hooded stranger appears as her rescuer. After a harrowing escape, Ana settles alone in a quiet village where no one knows her past or her reputation. The last thing she ever expects is to meet her mysterious savior again…
Niall MacCurran is no hero, but a warrior on a dangerous mission to expose a threat to the realm. After his decision to free Ana, he now realizes that it is he who needs her help—willing or no—to advance his quest. But his growing feelings for the delicate yet resilient beauty soon jeopardize their safety—and not even Ana’s healing gifts may be enough to protect their love, or their lives.
The foul-smelling guard trundled off to bed, taking the last torch in the windowless dungeon with him. Darkness poured into the room, swallowing every feeble mote of light. Losing sight of the desperate claw marks left in the dirt wall by her predecessors should have been a blessing. Instead, a mild sense of panic rose in Ana’s chest. The narrow space around her closed in, and the air grew thick and difficult to breathe.
Dear God. She did not want to die in this dark hole, completely forgotten.
Yet, that ending was a certainty.
Barely able to move in the confines of the primitive oubliette, she laid her forehead on the damp dirt that encircled her body, resting her tired neck muscles. Two days without water and food had weakened her. Her legs trembled with fatigue, her tongue was as dry as old leather, and her heart beat a quick, shallow pace in her chest. Some of her grief could be attributed to her location—the agonizing ache in her knees and the gritty taste of dirt in her mouth, for example—but mostly, her malaises were due to the lack of water.
Her jailers didn’t expect her to live much past the third day—indeed, they’d bet on it. Some unlucky souls endured the oubliette for as long as five, but Ana was slim of build. Her belly had long since ceased to cramp with hunger and now rolled with a vague sense of nausea. The urge to pee hadn’t nagged her in hours. She could feel the skin on her face thinning, the bones of her cheeks and jaws becoming more prominent. As a healer, she knew the signs of approaching death. It wouldn’t be much longer.
Had she been in better health before the trial, perhaps she would have lasted longer, but tending to the Earl of Lochurkie for eighteen straight hours before his death had taken a toll.
Calling it a trial gave the proceeding far more legitimacy than it deserved. Anyone who’d ever had a pail of milk go sour or who’d culled a poor harvest from a field had brought witness against her. Every wound she had healed over the past year, every life she had saved, had been forgotten. A purveyor of evil magic, her accusers had cried. In league with the banshees, some said. Witch.
Of course, the most damning evidence had come at the hands of the earl’s sister, Ysabel. The woman’s concise description of how her brother had fallen ill shortly after consuming a tisane had sealed her fate. The whisper in the room after that was poison. An assessment Ana agreed with—but she was not the poisoner.
She fisted her hands. Killing someone was the very opposite of her calling.
Exhausted by even that wee movement, she sagged against the wall, her bruised and swollen knees absorbing her weight. Protesting her innocence had gotten her nowhere. She’d been sentenced to death by pit or gallows. No one had sided with her, not even those few she considered her friends. She was going to die alone in this God-forsaken hole.
Tears stung her eyes, but she willed them away.
Losing body fluids would only bring the end on faster.
Oddly, even though the end was inevitable and excruciating pain shot through her body at every turn, she wanted to postpone her last moment as long as possible. Despite everything that had happened to her, she desperately wanted to live. Even for a few minutes longer.
When she died, this thin branch of the Bisset bloodline would die, too.
And with it would go the campfire dream.
Her mother—a healer like herself—had met her maker almost ten years past and her father—a traveling merchant—had dropped dead at the helm of his caravan wagon last winter. But for as long as Ana could remember, their evening ritual had included a detailing of the home they’d someday possess. A real home, not a bedroll in the back of a wagon. A thatch-roofed house nestled in a deep glen, next to a winding burn…with a fieldstone hearth and a large garden bursting with fresh herbs.
Ana closed her eyes. A home might only ever be a dream, but she could’ve planted a garden.
A rattle of heavy iron chain and a low groan echoed through the cavern.
The only other occupant of the dungeon was a large, badly-beaten man chained to the far wall of the room above. The guards had called him MacCurran, but no one in Lochurkie carried that name. He was a stranger. A stranger who was receiving regular food and water.
She tried not to resent that, but failed.
Beatings could be endured; a lack of water could not.
Another sound broke the silence of the night—a muffled grunt. It was accompanied by the slide of a leather boot on the dirt floor.
Ana opened her eyes and peered up at the mouth of the hole. Sure enough, the flickering gleam of a torch brightened the roof above her head. Someone was visiting MacCurran. At this hour? After the guard had gone to bed? A very odd occurrence.
“Hallo?” she called out. Her mouth was so dry all she managed was a croak, so she licked her lips and tried again. “Hallo?”
A terse exchange of whispers took place somewhere out of sight, then nothing.
No one responded to her call.
Chain links clinked, then fell to the packed dirt floor with a thump. More scuffled footsteps and another moan from the prisoner, this one louder. The glow of the torchlight dimmed, moving slowly but steadily away. The visitors were leaving. The thick pitch of midnight would soon clog her throat again.
A prideless plea spilled from Ana’s lips, driven by raw desperation.
“Please, don’t go.”
The circle of light on the ceiling continued to slip away.
The torchlight paused. Another harsh exchange of murmurs took place, ending with a short, final order. Then the circle of light grew larger. And larger and brighter still. They were coming back. Her bottom lip aquiver with gratitude, she shielded her eyes from the glare and waited to see a human face.
A hooded figure leaned over the mouth of the oubliette. A man, judging by the imposing height and broad shoulders. His face was hidden in shadow, the color of his brat lost in the murk. He stood over her for a moment, as if considering what to do, then threw down a rope.
“Tie it about your waist.”
It was a voice that brooked no refusal. Smooth and smoky like whisky, but edged with steel .
She stared at the dangling rope. Escaping her fate had not been her aim—all she had hoped for was a glimpse of another person and a brief dialogue before death claimed her. But this man was offering her freedom. A chance at a future. Life.
Even as weak as she was, how could she not leap at it?
She grasped the rough braid of hemp and quickly pulled the rope around her waist. Tying the knot was more of a challenge—her fingers were stiff and uncooperative, and her unbound hair kept getting in the way. But after a few stumbling tries and a grunt of disapproval from her savior, she managed to get the rope knotted.
He didn’t answer, just set the torch in a bracket on the wall and began tugging her up through the hole with surprising gentleness. Sadly, his care did little to ease the journey. As her legs stretched out and blood flowed freely once more, every inch of her skin burst into flame and a thousand tiny knives sliced into her flesh. A scream rose up her throat, but she contained it with a fierce clamp of her teeth on her bottom lip.
When she neared the top, he grabbed her arm and lifted her over the edge.
Lying face down on the dirt floor, Ana experienced a wicked bout of nausea. Desperate not to vomit, she flung out a hand, grabbed his sleeve, and used his solid body to sit up. As weak as she was, she likely wouldn’t have achieved her objective had her savior not put his strength behind her.
“Gently now,” he said. With a firm hand at her back, he bit the cork stopper from his oilskin pouch and put the bag to her lips. He allowed a trickle of water to flow into her mouth. The cold, wet taste was heaven, and she swallowed eagerly.
The trickle wasn’t enough. Her dry, cracked lips clamored for more. But he was right to curb the flow–if she drank too quickly, it would make her ill. The slow pace of drips entering her mouth was still a heavenly reprieve. Closing her eyes, she savored each one. Her tongue felt less like a batt of cotton with each glorious drop.
She was still desperately thirsty when he put the stopper back in the bag, but she said nothing. How could she begrudge his help in any way?
“To your feet now.” His hands slid under her arms and, in one effortless movement, he hauled her upright. Sharp pain stabbed the soles of her feet, and she whimpered. She held her own for a moment, thighs trembling, and then her knees buckled.
“The pain will ease the more you move,” he said, as she collapsed against his warm, steadfast chest.
Her savior tossed a glance over his shoulder. “Aye?”
“We’re ready. The kitchen gillies will rise soon to start the baking. Let’s have at it.”
He turned to her once more, his long straight nose the only feature she could properly see. The rest of his face was obscured by the hood, leaving only a vague suggestion of grim lips and a square chin. “Not one sound further, or all this will be for naught.”
Fear that she would fail him swamped her. Her aching body howled for rest and food. But she nodded.
He looped her arm around his neck, tucked her close to his side, and set off. The torch was left behind, a lone beacon in the darkness.
Ana stumbled alongside him, barely able to place one foot in front of the other. Were it not for his support, she’d not have made it three paces. His arm was strong and warm, and he lifted her with every step he took, even up the slime-coated stone stairs. The sharp pains in her legs obscured the occasional tug on her hair as they moved. They made surprisingly good time to the postern gate of Lochurkie Castle.
Half a dozen men stood waiting at the gate, two of them supporting the beaten prisoner MacCurran, whose head hung limply. All of them wore dark léines and the same style of brat. In the inky bleakness of predawn, she could not make out the colors.
They exited the gate, closing the heavy wooden portal quietly behind them. Ducking low, they scurried through the long dry grass of the open field to the edge of the forest.
There, they halted.
Her savior leaned her against a sapling elm. He took off his oilskin and handed it to her, along with a small chunk of bread. “This is where we must part ways.”
Ana’s grip on the narrow tree trunk tightened. His reluctance to take her further was understandable—she was a burden. She looked back at the castle. Torches were lit now in several places, and it wouldn’t be long before their escape was discovered. Once the guards gave chase, eluding capture would be nigh on impossible, but these brief moments of freedom and the hope that stirred in her chest were more than she’d had an hour ago.
“I am deeply grateful to you for bringing me this far.”
He looked away, silent for a moment. “Just stay to the trees and keep moving.” His men turned to leave, but he hesitated. Unsheathing the dirk at his belt, he offered it to her, hilt first. “In case you’ve a need.”
She took the weapon, the stag antler grip fitting surprisingly well in her hand. Polished steel gleamed in the moonlight. Did he mean for her to slay an attacker? Or herself if things looked too grim? She couldn’t be sure.
And then he was gone, his large shape swallowed by the dark gloom of the woods.
Ana stared at the spot where he’d disappeared, unable to move. Where was she to go? How was she to survive? She could not outrun a cadre of healthy male guards. Only moments ago, she would have met her dismal fate with nothing more than a bittersweet sadness; now she was overwhelmed with fear and dread.
A shout echoed through the night from the direction of the castle. The guards were alerted. She slipped the oilskin about her neck and tucked the bread into her sark. Things were about to get infinitely more difficult.
She pushed herself upright, ignoring the pains that shot up her legs. Her chances were slim, to be sure. But survival was possible, with a little luck. No one knew these woods better than she. She’d combed them many times, looking for ramsons, blackthorn bark, rowan berries, and other herbs. She knew which path led to the burn, and she knew the burn was her best bet if she wanted to outsmart the hounds.
She took a trembling step forward, leaving the support of the tree behind.
Her knees wobbled alarmingly and her heart beat with the fury of a hummingbird’s wings, but she made it to the next tree before she collapsed. The rough bark scraped skin from her palms and her breath hissed between clenched teeth. Pain means you’re alive, Ana. How many times had her mother said that? More than she could recall.
Alive was good. Alive was worth preserving.
She stumbled over moss-covered roots to another tree, and then another. It was a challenge to spy the trunks in the dark, and she made her way as much by feel as by sight. The pain in her legs receded, whether due to her regular movements or her mulish determination to ignore it, she didn’t know. All that registered in her thoughts was the sound of baying hounds. The hunt was on.
She’d be a fool to hope that the guards would follow the trail of her mysterious benefactor and his men. They were convinced she had murdered their lord. Woman or not, she could expect no leniency. She glanced at the trio of dead birch trees to her left, recognizing them. The path to the burn lay some hundred paces ahead, and the burn itself another fifty beyond that. She was moving too slowly. Making better time was critical. She had to leave the security of the trees behind and take the travel-worn path.
Was she strong enough?
Perhaps not, but the dogs were gaining on her.
With the image of her flesh torn asunder by snapping teeth gruesomely clear in her thoughts, she shoved away from the tree and ran for the path. The pound of her feet on the leaf-covered loam seemed excessively loud, but dwelling on that served no purpose. The burn was her goal. She could afford to think of nothing else. Until she was wading in the water and her scent was swept away by the current, she had no hope of survival.
Not far behind her, someone shouted. The huntsman had spotted her trail.
A moment later, the dogs had turned in her direction, their baying even louder.
Her heart thumped madly against her ribs and her breath wheezed through parched lips, but Ana did not stop. At the fork in the path, she veered left, clutching a hand to her chest as if that could prevent it from bursting. Her legs felt as if they did not belong to her, and a sapping weariness was creeping up her body. Her tongue thickened to a crusty lump, and the appeal of stopping to take a sip from the oilskin pouch grew near unbearable.
But she kept running.
The burn was only thirty paces away. If her breathing weren’t so labored, she’d be able to hear its merry trickle by now.
A fallen branch lay in her path, but she lacked the strength to leap it, so she went around. It was time she could not afford to lose. The barking was so close now it blocked out the hammer of her heartbeat. Surely a frenzied hound would sink its teeth into her leg at any moment.
Spotting the dip in the terrain that marked the meandering route of the burn, Ana dove through a hazelnut thicket and splashed into the flow. Icy water poured into her boots and drenched her woolen skirts. The uneven bed of the burn made every step perilous, but she plowed on—through a gossamer spider web, over a slippery algae-coated boulder, under a leaning fir tree. Her skirts dragged at her legs, exhausting her to the point of numbness, but she kept going.
Her boot slipped on a rock, her ankle twisted painfully, and she stumbled in the water, nearly going down. Only an instinctive jerk to the right saved her. But it came at a price—her elbow was jabbed by a broken tree branch, the sharp wood piercing her skin and robbing her of what little breath she had. Her hand went numb and she nearly dropped the knife.
The temptation to give up and fall to her knees might have won out at that moment, save for one thing—just above the gnarled fingers of the late autumn trees, the sky was brightening. No longer black, but a deep shade of indigo. The sun was fighting its way to the horizon, desperate to see another day, and she could do no less.
Ana swept her long hair out of her face. She clutched her injured elbow, pressed the wound with her fingers to stop the bleeding, and continued her dash through the burn. Her breaths came in gusty gulps, each one burning in her throat.
Sometime after she entered the water—an eternity, it seemed—the hounds abruptly ceased their cry. The odd yelp and howl still rose into the night, but the constant voice of a pack on a clear scent died off.
Experience told Ana that the longer she remained in the burn and took care not to touch land or shrub, the better her chances were of escape. But she couldn’t stay in the water forever—it slowed her down, and a good scent hound could pick up the trail again further downstream, especially if it caught a whiff of the blood she’d left behind on the stick. At some point, she’d need to leave the burn and make her way cross-land.
Near the waterfall, perhaps. There was a rugged trail leading down the cliff to the river.
Goal in mind, she found a new reserve of strength. Her back straightened, her knees firmed, and she splashed forward over a bed of smooth round stones. If she made it to the river, she’d be safe. Unlike most people, she knew how to swim. If she shed her long skirts and dove in, the water would carry her to freedom. She could do this.
Unfortunately, her heart proved uncooperative. As she picked up the pace, it skipped a few beats, and then began to flutter against her ribs in a wholly unsatisfying and frightening manner. A weakness stole through her limbs, making them feel twice as heavy as they’d felt only moments before. Her head swam, her breaths shortened, and a sudden dread that she would die consumed her.
Ana stopped running.
She stood in the icy stream, her arms wrapped around her body, shivering, trying to catch her breath, trying not to faint. Closing her eyes, she forced her breaths through her nose, rather than her mouth, and struggled to contain the frantic beats of her heart.
Be still, crazed heart. I will not die here. Not so close to safety.
Long moments passed like that, just breathing and shivering. Finally, to her immense relief, the pace of her heart abruptly slowed, returning to its heavy but more natural pound. She opened her eyes, ready to resume her flight.
The scowling face of a helmed Lochurkie guard stared back at her. He grabbed her uninjured elbow, his thick fingers digging into her flesh. “Got ya, ya bleedin’ wench.”
Ana reacted instinctively. The only thought spinning through her head was the fleeting promise of freedom. She slashed at the guard with the hunting knife.
The blade cut through his cotun sleeve and the flesh of his arm with almost equal ease. Blood gushed, the guard howled, and her mouth soured. She, who’d taken a solemn oath to heal and preserve life, had willingly and consciously harmed another being. But what alternative was there? He was so much larger and stronger than she. And didn’t she deserve to live? Ana swallowed tightly and fought for her freedom. Yanking her elbow free, she shoved the guard away and ran in the direction of the cliff.
The river was so close.
Just a few hundred feet and she could slide down the path.
A large bramble whipped her face as she passed, but she paid no mind to the deep scratches it left behind. Her gaze was locked on the lone gray-barked Scots fir directly ahead. It stood at the top of the path.
The guard shouted to his cohorts and gave chase. Heavy footsteps and angry assurances of retribution followed her through the brush. Her pace was much slower than his, her strength still feeble in comparison. She prayed that she would reach the edge before he caught her.
And she very nearly did.
She was but a step away from the rough dirt path leading down the cliff when a meaty hand latched onto her long, loose hair and yanked her backward. Completely exhausted by her bid for escape, she had no hope of maintaining her balance. She fell heavily, striking the ground with her hip and then her head. Her head hit something hard—a rock or a tree root—and a dizzying blur of black spots crowded her vision. The guard sprang at her, and she barely had the wits to roll to one side.
But she did roll.
Right off the edge.
She grabbed for one of the roots of the fir tree as she slid—and missed. The guard’s hand was still tangled in her hair, but his grip was not sufficient to hold her weight. Strands began to break and tear free, and suddenly Ana was falling.
Her last image was of the scowling guard clutching a handful of red hair.
Then darkness swallowed her.