Thomas stood up and straightened his shoulders, “You will not die. You are pledged to our laird and we will take you home.” He abruptly wrinkled his brow. “You are Lady Anna, are you not?” He was relieved when she nodded.
A tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly dabbed it away with the cloth. “You do not understand; dying is the only gift I have to give.”
He was so taken aback, he didn’t say another word. Instead, he took the cloth from her, dipped it in the cold water one last time and handed it back.
“I need to …” she started.
He understood what she wanted and nodded. He helped her walk behind some trees, left her there and told the men to move away.
Anna thought about trying to run, but it was a fleeting thought. It was all she could do to take care of the necessary and bending her knee hurt profusely. At length, she walked back around the trees and went to the creek. She eased down on the rock, cupped her hands and tried to lean over, but the motion stretched her back. Before she knew it, Thomas was kneeling in front of her again. He untied his flask of water and helped her hold it so she could drink. She was beginning to feel a little better. “Thank you.”
He put his flask away and nodded. “Are you hungry?”
She shook her head. “How far?”
“Not far, we will arrive before dark. Tell me when you need to rest.”
“I need a new face.”
It made him smile. Perhaps she wasn’t going to die after all. He offered his hand to help her up again, but when she saw her horse, she bowed her head. “What is it?”
“I have no belongings?”
He was afraid she would begin to cry and he couldn’t blame her if she did. “We will see to your needs.”
As soon as Thomas mounted his horse, Clymer put his hands around Anna’s waist and lifted her back into Thomas’ lap. Then Clymer handed the reins of her horse to another man, quickly mounted and rode away.
Anna hurt everywhere and it wasn’t easy to stay upright, yet she would rather die than let these men see what a coward she really was. If Kevin MacGreagor was the monster her father said, she would need a great deal more courage than this to endure him.
She didn’t want to think about Kevin MacGreagor and instead, tried to decide what hurt the most. It was her back. The bleeding had stopped and the skin was tightening. The threads of her clothing were stuck to the wounds and pulled when she moved -- which on a horse, was constantly. She wondered if her cold rag would ease her back, but couldn’t imagine anything touching the rope burns. The remaining sleeve of her favorite gown was in shreds and when she looked down at her soiled skirt, it was clear her father’s degradation was complete.
Thomas could feel the drops of blood hitting his arm, and was worried she would bleed to death before he got her home. “Lean against me, Lass, and hold on. We must go faster.” He waited until she complied and then encouraged his horse to gallop.
Clymer rode hard to the MacGreagor keep to tell Kevin what had happened. He knew his laird would be enraged, but not as enraged now as he would be when he saw her. The beating of a defenseless woman was a specific insult to all MacGreagors, and Kevin’s worries about an English bride not fitting in would be trifle now.
As soon as he was spotted riding swiftly up the road toward the village, one of the guards let out a long, low whistle and others hurried to lower the drawbridge across the moat. A crowd, all dressed in his same colors, began to gather as Clymer slowed his horse, crossed the bridge, covered the width of the courtyard, and then halted his horse near the steps of the Keep.
Standing on the landing outside the door of his home, Kevin knew something was wrong or Clymer wouldn’t have come back alone. He held his breath and watched as his warrior took the steps two at a time to reach him.
He was nearly out of breath, but Clymer wasted no time before he blurted it out, “She has been beaten.”
Kevin’s head jutted forward. “What?”
“She wants to die, Kevin. She said ‘tis the only gift she has to give.”
He spread his legs apart, crossed his arms and prepared himself to hear the details. “But she is still alive?”
“Aye. Thomas felt her stomach, but he dared not touch her ribs. She is able to stand, but we do not know how bad she is hurt. She is very brave. She only shed one tear, but her face, Kevin; they hit her in the face.”
“Is she bleeding?”
“There was blood on the ground near her horse. It comes from her mouth. Her back bled, but it stopped before I left. We should have taken a lass with us. We cannot tell if she has been…”
Kevin quickly interrupted him, “Have the lads stopped?”
“Nay, they will continue unless Thomas thinks she can ride no longer.”
“How far away are they?”
Clymer looked up to see where the sun was in the sky. “They are going slow, half a day, maybe more. She needs Katie’s medicine for the rope burns, and…”
“Rope burns?” It was Kevin’s sister, Katie, who asked the question. Standing in the doorway behind her brother, she looked a lot like Kevin with the same dark hair and soft blue eyes.
“Aye, they bound her in three places and left her across the back of a horse face down. Whoever did it wanted her dead by the time we got there. The ropes broke the skin on her back, but we could see no blood on the back of her skirt where her legs were bound.”
Katie shook her head in disbelief. “Is she dirty as well?”
“Aye, she is covered in it, her clothes are torn and her belongings are gone.” He bowed his head and took a forgotten breath. “She does not complain. She has been kicked.”
“Kevin, you must cover her before you bring her here. She will not like anyone seeing her like that.”
Kevin’s arms were by his sides now and his fists were clenched. It didn’t take long for the growing crowd to pass the word, which made the women bow their heads. The men narrowed their eyes and closely watched their laird, waiting for his command. Filled with rage, Kevin didn’t trust himself to say a word, but he nodded to his sister and then to his stable master on the other side of the courtyard. Everyone knew what he meant to do and instantly, several men headed for their horses.
“Find the priest,” Kevin ordered finally.
“Do you think she will die?” Katie asked.
“I will not let her die; I intend to marry her now instead.”
In a matter of minutes, his horse was ready, the priest was found and a contingent of men followed him across the drawbridge. The priest was normally a talkative, friendly man, but he’d never been surrounded by so much anger, and he wisely kept his mouth shut. God help the man who did this, he thought as he crossed himself.
They rode hard, slowing to follow a narrow path when it was required, and then racing across the open land. At last, they spotted Anna’s small band of protectors in the distance.
Anna was not on her horse and Kevin began to panic, until he noticed Thomas holding her in his lap. He slowed his men and when they were close enough, he put his hand up to stop both guards. He signaled the priest to follow and then slowly walked his horse toward his future wife.
The closer he got, the worse she looked. Someone had cut off all her hair, she was slumped against Thomas and for a moment, he thought she was dead. If she was, all his attempts to avoid a war were for naught. For this, all of Scotland would feel his wrath. She finally moved her hand and he remembered to breathe. He guided his horse around to the other side and looked at her back. The moment he saw it, he closed his eyes and brought a hand up to his forehead.