Kevin was surprised by her boldness. She was showing him how not to hurt her and he was grateful. She was also holding on tight so he could go faster and he couldn’t help himself. He softly laid his cheek against the top of her head. “Tell me if you need to stop again.” He felt her slight nod.
He had ridden hard to get to her, but he wasn’t about to ride that hard getting her back and only urged the horse to gallop. It was still a long ride and Kevin noticed Thomas often looking at her face. She was still bleeding, but Thomas didn’t seem too concerned, so Kevin kept going. He knew she wasn’t sleeping; she still had a grip on his arm and he realized it was a good way to know she was still alive. The priest, he noticed, was praying and crossing himself often.
He should have sent the guard all the way to her home instead of arranging to meet her half way. At the time, he felt it would keep her from having to spend a night in the forest alone with his men. He knew his men would honor her, but she didn’t know that.
He quickly lowered his head. “Do you want to stop?” He felt her shake her head a little, but he slowed the horse anyway and his men slowed with him. She shifted her weight, adjusted her arms and relaxed again. “I am very sorry you are hurt,” he softly said.
Anna ignored him. She was too tired to hold on any longer and needed to find a more comfortable position for her hand. She tried moving it to her lap, but his arm was in the way. He started to lift it so she could slip her arm under his, but she gently pushed it back down.
It was then he noticed how cold her hand was and slowed the horse even more. “I won’t let you fall. Use my warmth, Anna.”
She tried a couple of different positions before she finally turned her upper body a little more toward him and tucked her hand inside his shirt just above his belt. The warmth felt wonderful and she wanted to consume all of it. It seemed, as long as she could feel his warmth and hear his heart, she could stand the pain. Why was that?
He started them moving faster again, although she had to be suffering, and he wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do. She never made a sound and he greatly admired her for it. He wasn’t sure even he was that brave.
At last, he slowed the horse to a walk and led the way back across the drawbridge. Almost every adult in the clan was gathered in the courtyard silently watching. It was supposed to be a celebration when he met his intended, but everything was different now. She was not covered, his followers couldn’t help but see the damage, and several lowered their eyes.
Then he saw it. As he neared the steps, he noticed the women had left gifts for his wife, one on each step. There was a brush for her hair -- what was left of it, several soft cloths for her to wash with, new shirts and plaids, shoes, soap and soft leather belts. Each gift was adorned with flower petals and Kevin couldn’t have been more pleased.
He glanced at the faces of the women and nodded his appreciation. “We are home,” he whispered. He waited until Anna sat up straight, got down and lifted her to the ground. Then he held on until he was sure she had her balance. “Can you walk?”
He took her hand and led her to the steps where she too noticed the gifts. “They are for you.”
Anna slowly turned to look at all the people. Some caught their breath when they got a good look at her face, but she dismissed it. She knew she must look awful. Just as he had done, she nodded her appreciation, and she meant it too.
However, when she tried to bend her knee to climb the first step, it was obvious she needed help, so Kevin quickly scooped her up into his arms. “You can show your bravery later.”
As he carried her up the stairs, she noticed some of the women had tears in their eyes. No one, except perhaps her imprisoned mother, had ever cared for her enough to cry and it puzzled her.
Kevin carried her through the door, across the great hall, up a flight of stairs and turned down a long balcony. When he reached the last bedchamber, he took her inside, where his sister and two other women were waiting.
He carefully lowered Anna to the bed; made sure she could sit up and then knelt down in front of her. “Katie is my sister and she will take good care of you.” Anna’s eyes were closed and he knew she had to be exhausted. “All that we have is yours for the asking. Do not hesitate.”
She wasn’t paying much attention to his words, but she nodded slightly anyway. All she wanted was to be left alone and it didn’t look like that was going to happen any time soon. When she opened her good eye, he was gone.
Kevin reached the bottom of the stairs before he began to run his fingers through his hair and take several deep breaths. When he looked down, his whole front was covered with blood. “She bled too much and she is very cold. Even my body did not warm her.”
Thomas put a comforting hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “It was right to bring her faster. Her bleeding will stop now.”
“Should we give her wine?”
“It will hurt her mouth and she will throw up again.”
“‘Tis hard to see a lass suffer.”
“It ‘tis, at that. The people want to talk to you.”
Kevin rubbed his brow. “I hardly know what to say.”
“She is their mistress now and they have waited a long time for one. Just tell them she is not going to die.”
“Do you believe it?”
“I do. She wanted us to let her die when we found her, but she does not give in to it. She keeps herself alive.”
Kevin ran his fingers through his hair one last time, opened the door and went out.
“Who did this?” a man shouted.
“We do not know, but she is strong, she will survive.”
“Is she hurt inside?” a woman wanted to know.
“She says nay. She needs rest and time to heal.”
Another woman asked, “Where does she bleed?”
Thomas answered, “You will know everything soon enough. Go home and let her rest.” They obeyed and as soon as they began to disperse, he and Kevin walked across the courtyard and headed to the loch to wash the blood off.
They were grateful when a woman handed clean clothing to each. Keeping clean was something Kevin insisted on for all his people and for a very important reason. Should they need to hide or sneak up on an enemy, he wanted to make sure no one could smell them before they saw them.
The loch was to the east of the Keep and was normally a quiet, tranquil place. Neither man bothered to undress. They removed their shoes, walked into the loch and swam the width of it twice, not only to clean the blood, but to relieve their anger. It wasn’t helping that much and he wasn’t sure why, but Kevin found it uncomfortable being that far away from Anna. He got out, changed into the clean clothing and headed back.
In the bedchamber, the next hour was a flurry of activity. Katie looked inside her mouth to see where the blood was coming from, saw the cut and told her not to talk. Anna was relieved to find Katie’s English was as good as her brother’s.
The three women cut off her clothing and bathed her. They looked as pained to do it as she felt, and soon she found herself trying to comfort them with a gentle touch and a nod. Katie applied a soothing salve to her rope burns, which helped, and Gretchen spoon fed her warm broth, so she wouldn’t have to open her mouth much. It was all very kind of them and very, very unsettling for Anna.
Finally, they let her lay down on her stomach. Katie was careful to cover her backside only up to her waist, and sent the others out so Anna could sleep.
Kevin stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as the two women came down, and then hurried off to tell the rest of the clan every detail of her condition. He waited until they closed the large front door behind them and then turned to Clymer. “Send riders to the nearest clans to tell them what has happened.” He watched Clymer leave and turned to walk up the stairs. Kevin knew once the first few were told, word would spread all across the Highlands and the message would be clear -- someone tried to kill Kevin MacGreagor’s bride and he wanted to know who.
Katie pulled a chair up next to Anna’s bed and sat down. “It is all right to cry, you know. We are family now and I will not blame you.”