His rage turned to pity and for a reason he could not understand, he wanted her in his arms. If she died, he wanted to be holding her when it happened. Somehow, this was his fault, but he couldn’t think of that just now. First, he had to get her home where Katie could try to keep her alive.
Kevin turned his horse around, eased up next to Thomas and noticed the look of despair on his second’s face. It was clear Thomas didn’t think she would survive. He took a longer look at her back, put his arm between the rope burns, slipped his other arm under her knees and gently lifted her. She only slightly moaned when he set her in his lap.
Suddenly, she reeled back and looked up at him. The terror in her one good eye startled him. “‘Tis all right, Lass, you are safe now.”
“Who are you?”
“I will now be your husband.”
“Aye, now.” Kevin nodded and the priest waited until Thomas moved away so he could come closer.
Anna started to protest, but then she thought about her little sister, Rachel. The child was not yet four and Anna was well aware her father meant what he said; he would kill Rachel if Anna didn’t comply. Yet she was only supposed to agree to marry him. She heard the priest begin and said, “No.”
“Aye,” demanded Kevin.
She put her hands on her head, remembered her hair was almost gone, closed her eyes and hung her head in shame. She’d never felt so defeated.
“It will grow back, Lass.”
She doubted she would live that long. Why not marry him? Death would come soon no matter what she did and he was so insistent. She hardly had the strength to breathe, let alone sit there and argue with the man. So when he demanded she marry him a second time, she nodded her consent and prayed death would come quickly.
The priest shortened the ceremony as best he could, but Anna wasn’t even listening. She said, ‘I do,’ and the priest blessed the marriage. It was done then and there was nothing she could do about it, so she relaxed, leaned against her husband and awaited her fate.
The Priest unfolded an extra plaid and handed it to him, but Kevin couldn’t think how to cover her back. The wool was soft, but not soft enough. There wasn’t a man alive who didn’t know how badly a rope burn hurt, especially when the skin was cut. He finally covered her in the front, left her back open and when he nodded, the rest of his men came to escort them home.
The more he thought about what they had done to her, the angrier he became. He turned to Thomas and spoke in Gaelic. “Did you see anyone?”
“Nay, she was alone in the clearing. They must have killed her guard, but not there. We did not see them.”
Anna found it very odd, but the sound of Kevin’s voice and the warmth of his body soothed her. She turned just enough to put her ear against his chest, and the beat of his heart somehow made her feel safe. Ridiculous! Safe would be far, far away from them all, especially her father.
Blood hit Kevin’s arm and he noticed. “Has she been bleeding the whole time?”
“Aye, ‘tis worse when she tries to talk.”
“Did you ask her who did this?”
“She did not answer.”
Kevin paused to think for a moment. “Who could have done it?”
Thomas shook his head. “Sophia was not pleased when you refused her, and cutting off Anna’s hair is something a lass might do.”
“Could a lass alone do this much damage?”
“Nay, if it was Sophia, she had help. English swine might have done it,” said Thomas.
“Aye, but they rarely come this far north and we have had no report of them. Who among the clans could hate me enough to nearly kill my bride?”
“I can think of no one else. All the clans have known of your plans for weeks, and some even knew you would meet her today. It could have been anyone.”
Kevin gritted his teeth. “I will kill the lads who did this.”
“And I will happily help you.”
They rode in silence for a while before Kevin asked, “Could Sophia’s father be behind it? Did he take offense when I refused his daughter?”
“I did not see it in his face, and surely he would not be willing to go to war over it.”
“Lads have gone to war for less,” said Kevin.
“True. We live on very good land and they might think to take it from us while we fight a war.”
Anna suddenly arched her back and Kevin realized he accidentally brushed his arm against it. He leaned down and whispered, “I am sorry, Lass. I will be more careful.” He felt her lean a little further forward and relax again. Then he closed his eyes. No woman should have to suffer such brutality and especially not because of him. He decided to be quiet and let her sleep if she could.
It was another hour of going slowly up hill and down again, before she suddenly sat up. “I am going to throw up.”
“Spread out!” he ordered. He jerked on the reins, pulled the extra plaid off her and tossed it away. Then he slid down, grabbed her waist and carefully lowered her to the ground. She turned, walked into the trees and bent over.
Anna didn’t realize Kevin had his hands on her waist, holding her from behind so she wouldn’t fall. What came up was mostly blood and she tried not to get it on her skirt, which was absurd since it was already ruined. “Please, just let me die.”
“I will not let you die. Did they knock out your teeth?” Kevin asked.
She shook her head.
“Are you hurt inside?”
Again, she shook her head. “My mouth is cut.” She felt her lips with her fingertips, and was grateful when Thomas handed her a cloth. She dabbed at her lips and took a deep breath.
Thomas remembered to speak English. When he spoke to Clymer at the creek in Gaelic, it seemed to disturb her. “We need to get her home, Kevin, she needs rest.”
“It will hurt her if we go faster.”
Anna shook her head. “Get it over with, and do not cover me.”
“She is right, Kevin. The longer she is on a horse, the longer she will bleed.”
Finally feeling a little anger of her own, she twisted free of his hands, ignored her bare feet, and walked back to his horse. She waited for Kevin to mount, let Thomas lift her and decided to see to her own comfort. Her legs were over Kevin’s leg and the bruise on the side of her knee was touching it. So when she noticed Thomas folding the extra plaid, she said, “May I have that?”
“Aye.” When she pointed to her knee, he folded the plaid smaller and slipped it under her leg.
Next, she moved Kevin’s arm lower on her hip. Then she touched the piece of plaid over his shoulder and looked up at him. He realized it was not soft enough, pulled the cloth out of his belt, and tossed it over his shoulder. Then he opened his shirt so even it would not chafe her skin.
The one thing she couldn’t do anything about was the inside of her mouth. The cut, apparently from her own teeth, went all the way from her lip to the back of her jaw. It was swollen on the inside too and each up and down movement of the horse made her teeth go into the cut again. The last thing she did was turn enough to put her head against his bare chest so she could hear his heart again. Then she grabbed hold of his arm, closed her eyes and relaxed.