The Highlander Series(4)

By: Maya Banks



“Yield,” he demanded, his fist raised in warning.

“Nay.”

Her voice didn’t come out as strong as before. It came out more of a breathy exhalation than anything, and her lips trembled. But she made herself heard.

In the great hall, the murmurs rose, and Duncan’s face swelled, his cheeks purpling until she thought he might well explode.

That shiny boot kicked out, connecting with her body. Her cry of pain was muted by the next blow. Over and over, he kicked, and then he yanked her up and drove his fist into her side.

“Laird, you’ll kill her!”

She was barely conscious. She had no idea who uttered the warning. She hung in his grasp, every breath causing her unbearable pain.

Duncan dropped her in disgust. “Lock her in her chambers. No one is to give her any food or water. Nor that brat of hers. We’ll see how soon it takes her to yield when he starts whining of hunger.”

Again, she was hauled upward with no regard to her injuries. Each step up the stairs was agony as she bounced against the hard stone. The door to her chamber opened, and Finn threw her inside.

She hit the floor, battling for consciousness with every breath.

“Mairin!”

Crispen huddled over her, his little hands gripping her painfully.

“Nay, don’t touch me,” she whispered hoarsely. If he touched her, she was sure she’d faint.

“You must get to the bed,” he said desperately. “I’ll help you. Please, Mairin.”

He was near tears, and it was only the thought of how he’d survive in Duncan’s hands if she died that prevented her from closing her eyes and praying for peace.

She roused herself enough to crawl toward the bed, each movement sending a scream down her spine. Crispen bore as much of her weight as he could, and together they managed to haul her over the edge of the bed.

She melted into the straw mattress, hot tears slipping down her cheeks. Breathing hurt. Crispen settled next to her, his warm, sweet body seeking comfort she couldn’t offer.

Instead, his arms went around her, and he hugged her to his little body. “Please don’t die, Mairin,” he begged softly. “I’m scared.”

“Lady. My lady, wake up. You must wake up.”

The urgent whisper roused Mairin from unconsciousness, and as soon as she turned, seeking the annoyance that disturbed her, agony flashed through her body until she gasped for breath.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said anxiously. “I know you’re badly injured, but you must hurry.”

“Hurry?”

Mairin’s voice was slurred, and her brain was a mass of cobwebs. Beside her, Crispen stirred and gave a start of fright when he saw the shadow standing over the bed.

“Aye, hurry,” the impatient voice came again.

“Who are you?” Mairin managed to ask.

“We haven’t time to talk, Lady. The laird is in a drunken sleep. He’ll think you too badly hurt to escape. We have to go now if you are to make it. He plans to kill the child if you don’t yield.”

At the word escape, some of the cobwebs vanished. She tried to sit up but nearly cried out when pain knifed through her side.

“Here, let me help you. You too, lad,” the woman said to Crispen. “Help me with your lady.”

Crispen scrambled over the bed and slid off the edge.

“Why are you doing this?” Mairin asked when they both helped her sit up.

“What he did was a disgrace,” the woman murmured. “To beat a lass as he did you. He’s mad. You’ve been his obsession. I fear for your life no matter whether you yield or not. He’ll kill the boy.”

Mairin squeezed her hand with the little strength she had. “Thank you.”

“We must hurry. There is a bolt-hole in the next chamber. You’ll have to leave alone. I can’t risk taking you. At the end, Fergus waits for you with a horse. He’ll put you and the lad on it. It’ll pain you, aye, but you’ll have to endure. ’Tis your only way out.”

Mairin nodded her acceptance. Escape in agony or die in comfort. Didn’t seem like such a difficult decision.

The serving woman cracked open the door of the chamber, turned back to Mairin, and put a finger to her lips. She motioned to the left to let Mairin know the guard was there.

Crispen slid his hand into hers, and again she squeezed to comfort him. Inch by breathless inch, they crept by the sleeping guard in the darkness of the hall. Mairin held her breath the entire way, afraid if she let out so much as a puff, the guard would wake and alert the keep.

Finally they reached the next chamber. Dust flew and curled around her nose as they stepped within, and she had to squeeze her nostrils to keep from sneezing.

“Over here,” the woman whispered in the darkness.

Mairin followed the sound of her voice until she felt the chill emanating from the stone wall.

“God be with you,” the serving woman said as she ushered Mairin and Crispen into the small tunnel.

Mairin stopped only long enough to squeeze her hand in a quick thank-you, and then she urged Crispen into the narrow passageway.

Each step sent a fresh wave of agony through Mairin. She feared her ribs were broken, but there was naught that could be done about it now.

They hurried through the darkness, Mairin all but dragging Crispen behind her.

“Who goes there?”

Mairin halted at the man’s voice but remembered that the woman had said Fergus awaited them.

“Fergus?” she called softly. “ ’Tis I, Mairin Stuart.”

“Come, Lady,” he urged.

She rushed to the end and stepped onto the cold, damp ground, wincing when her bare feet made contact with rough pebbles. She gazed at their surroundings and saw that the bolt-hole exited the back of the keep where there was only a skirt between the keep and the hillside that jutted skyward.

Wordlessly, Fergus melted into the darkness, and Mairin ran to catch up to him. They moved along the bottom of the hillside and headed for the dense population of trees at the perimeter of Duncan’s holding.

A horse was tied to one of the trees, and Fergus quickly freed him, gathering the reins as he turned to Mairin.

“I’ll lift you up first and then the lad.” He pointed into the distance. “That way is north. God be with you.”

Without another word, he lifted her, all but tossing her into the saddle. It was all she could do not to fall off. Tears crushed her eyes and she doubled over, fighting unconsciousness.

Help me please, God.

Fergus lifted Crispen, who settled in front of her. She was glad he wasn’t riding behind her because, God’s truth, she needed something to hang on to.

“Can you manage the reins?” she whispered to Crispen as she leaned into him.

“I’ll protect you,” Crispen said fiercely. “Hold on to me, Mairin. I’ll take us home, I swear it.”

She smiled at the determination in his voice. “I know you will.”

Fergus gave the horse a slap, and it started forward. Mairin bit her lip against the scream of pain that battled to erupt. She would never make it even a mile.

Alaric McCabe drew up his horse and held his fist up to halt his men. They’d ridden all morning, searching endless trails, tracking hoofprints to no avail. All were dead ends. He slid from the saddle and strode forward to view the disturbance in the soil. Kneeling, he touched the faint hoofprints and the flattened grass to the side. It looked as though someone took a fall from a horse. Recently.

He scanned the immediate area and saw a footprint in a patch of bare soil a few feet away, then lifted his gaze toward the area the person had headed. Slowly he rose, drew his sword, and motioned for his men to spread out and circle the area.

Carefully, he stepped through the trees, watching warily for any sign of ambush. He saw the horse first, grazing a short distance away, the reins hanging, the saddle askew. He frowned. Such disregard for the care of a horse was surely a sin.

A slight rustle to his right swung him around, and he found himself staring at a small woman, her back wedged against a huge tree. Her skirts jumped like she had a litter of kittens hidden underneath, and her wide blue eyes were full of fear—and fury.

Her long black hair hung in disarray to her waist, and it was then he noticed the colors of her tunic and the coat of arms embroidered at the hem.

Rage temporarily blinded him, and he advanced, his sword held in an arc over his head.

She flung an arm behind her, shoving something farther between her and the tree. Her skirts wriggled again, and it was then he realized she shielded a person. A child.

“Stay behind me,” she hissed.

“But Mair—”

Alaric froze. He knew that voice. His fingers shook, for the first time in his life his hand unsteady around the hilt. Hell would be a cold place indeed before he ever allowed a Cameron hand on his kin.

With a snarl of rage, he charged forward, grasped the woman by the shoulder, and hurled her aside. Crispen stood against the tree, his mouth open. Then he saw Alaric and all but leapt into his arms.

The sword fell to the ground—another sin of neglect—but in that moment Alaric didn’t care. Sweet relief staggered him.

“Crispen,” he said hoarsely, as he hugged the boy to him.

A shriek of rage assaulted his ears just as he was hit by a flying bundle of woman. So surprised was he, that he stumbled backward, his hold on Crispen loosening.

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