Baron Stoneham was a big man with foul smelling breath, who nearly always yelled. “You will agree! You are to go to his keep, agree to marry him and wait. Do you understand?”
It was a waste, she knew, but she stood her ground anyway. “I will not agree.”
The baron’s punishment was not what she expected. The two guards grabbed her arms and held her still while her father closed his fist and started to strike. Then he thought better of it. Slowly, he pulled his dagger and began to cut handfuls of her hair off. She was appalled and watched as her lovely locks fell to the wooden floor, but Anna didn’t cry. Years of experience taught her that crying would make him think he’d won. No, she would never let him see her cry.
“Do not fret, Anna. He will find you distasteful, but he has accepted you and he will not go back on his word. Highlanders are wild beasts and if he is as big as his father is, he is a brute of a man, who would rather kill you than look at you. All he asks is that you willingly agree to the marriage and I have assured him you will.” When Stoneham finished with her hair, he stood back and surveyed the damage. Satisfied, his words took on a sarcastic tone. “Let me see, perhaps a scar across your face would further his despair. Yes…yes, an ugly scar would be sweet revenge indeed.”
“What has this man done to deserve your ire?” she asked.
“Kevin MacGreagor has done nothing at all. It was his father who tricked me and I have not forgotten. When I attack the MacGreagors, I will burn his home and kill all his followers. And if you are a good girl, I might let you live. Do as I say, Anna, and before you know it, you will be back in England where you belong.”
She was hardly listening when he vowed to kill her little sister and her mother if she did not obey. Instead, she was trying to decide how best to avoid his dagger. Just then, he oddly put it away, and she was so greatly relieved, she was off her guard when he hit her with his fist. The blow knocked her out.
When Anna awoke just after dawn, she was lying face down across the back of a grazing horse. One rope was wrapped around her upper chest and arms, a second one was a few inches above her waist and a third bound her legs. She wiggled to get free of the constraints, but it was no use. Next, she tried scooting back in hopes she would slide off, but that didn’t work either. Her ribs hurt, her head was pounding and she doubted she could survive much longer with her head hanging down that way. This cannot be right, she thought. Surely, her father didn’t mean for her to die before she agreed to marry the Highlander.
Anna heard the thunder of their horses long before she saw them. They were enormous Highlanders, riding swiftly toward her, and the sight of them was terrifying. Except for seeing a few from a distance, she had very little knowledge of the people who lived in the north, and if what her father said was true, she’d been left at the gates of hell.
She closed her eyes, relaxed and pretended to be dead.
There were seven men in all, each dressed in the tradition of their clan with white shirts, light blue kilts and a length of matching cloth over one shoulder. As soon as they reached her, five formed a defensive circle, drew their swords and searched the woods with their eyes while the other two quickly dismounted and ran to her.
Clymer was shocked to find a woman in that condition and didn’t hesitate to slip his arm under her, carefully pull her down and stand her on the ground. Then he held on to her while Thomas cut and unwound the ropes. Her green gown was dirty, a missing sleeve exposed several bruises on her arm, and she wore no shoes.
In command of the small group of guards, Thomas was sickened at the sight of her injuries. The ropes had cut through her clothing, burned her all the way across her back in two places, and she was bleeding. Yet, when she finally raised her head, nothing could have prepared them for the sight of her face. It was a mass of swollen bruises. Blood covered her chin and trickled down her neck into her gown.
“‘Tis a wonder she is alive,” said Thomas. He quickly mounted his horse and walked it as close to her as he could. “Give her to me.”
Clymer couldn’t think of a place to touch her without hurting her, but there wasn’t time, so he just scooped her up and seated her in front of Thomas. He grabbed the reins of her horse, mounted his own and headed them north.
Thomas wrapped his arm around her waist and nudged his horse forward. “You are not safe here,” he whispered in less than perfect English. He felt her grab hold of his arm, and was relieved she had enough strength to do it. He knew her head had to be pounding as the blood drained back into her body, and wondered how she was able to sit up straight.
They were on MacGreagor land, but without knowing who had beaten her, they needed to be deeper in the forest and a lot more difficult to find. Several minutes later, Thomas gave the word and they halted in the thick forest near a small stream.
He was almost as big as Kevin with dark hair and green eyes. Thomas was Laird MacGreagor’s second in command and escorting the clan’s future mistress was a very high honor. When the men left home, they were not at war with anyone. Now they would be. A rage was building in Thomas, and once the others heard, the MacGreagor warriors would find the men who did this and gladly crush their skulls.
Thomas set those thoughts aside and took a deep, calming breath. First, he needed to keep her alive, at least long enough to tell them who did it. At his nod, the other men dismounted, took up defensive positions around them, and prepared to fight to keep her safe.
Thomas leaned to his right a little, so he could examine her back more closely. He decided if he was careful and put his arm between the rope burns, he could carry her without hurting her so much. He slid off the back of the horse, eased her down and carried her to the creek. As gently as he could, he set her on a smooth rock and held on until he was sure she could hold herself upright.
With Clymer standing behind him, Thomas knelt down on one knee in front of her. “Who did this to you?”
She didn’t answer. With the tip of her tongue, she checked to see if any teeth were missing. She had a long, deep cut on the inside of her cheek and knew that side of her face was swollen. The other side was not as bad, except her eye was nearly swollen shut. Her jaw hurt and when she felt a painful lump, she carefully moved her mouth up and down to see if it was broken. It didn’t seem to be, but her nose had not fared so well and she looked at Thomas. “Can you fix it?”
“It will hurt, Milady.” Before she could fear what he was about to do, he took hold of the back of her head with one hand and quickly straightened her nose with the other. She closed her eyes, clenched her fists and took deep breaths, as the pain shot through her whole face. Knowing first-hand how much it hurt, Thomas kept one hand on the back of her head and the other on her arm, ready to catch her if she passed out. At last, she began to relax her clenched fists and he knew the worst of the pain had subsided.
Thomas turned to Clymer and spoke in Gaelic. “She is very brave.”
“We should have brought a lass. How will we know if she is hurt inside?” asked Clymer.
Thomas turned back to Anna, “I must touch you.” He waited for her nod, put his hand on her stomach and gently pushed to see if it caused discomfort. It didn’t seem to hurt her. Next, he carefully felt her arms and then her legs. She had a large lump on the side of her knee and he feared it was broken.
“I must look,” Thomas whispered.
She was reluctant, but began to gather her skirt on that side until it was high enough to expose more bruises on her leg and the lump on her knee.
“Do you think it is broken?” Thomas asked.
She shook her head and let her skirt slide back down. They were Highlanders and she didn’t trust them, but this one seemed caring. “Who are you?”
“I am Thomas. We are your protection, Milady.”
“You are too late.”
“We came at the arranged time. If we had…”
She did not mean to insult him and thought to apologize, but changed the subject instead. “What day is this?”
Thomas wasn’t sure, so he looked to Clymer for the answer.
“Sunday,” Clymer answered.
Anna whispered, “Sunday, it cannot be.”
Thomas drew his dagger, pulled a length of kilt free of his belt and cut it off. He dipped it in the cold creek water, handed it to her, and watched her hold it against her swollen eye. Until then, she had not noticed the blood on him, reached out and touched his arm.
“Aye, ‘tis your blood. It will stop soon.” He took the cloth, rinsed it again and handed it back. “We will take you home.”
“I wish to die.”