Read Highland Escape Online

Authors: Cathy MacRae,DD MacRae

Highland Escape

BOOK: Highland Escape
6.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Highland Escape

Cathy MacRae and DD MacRae

Fleeing the English army that murdered her family before her eyes, Anna Braxton rescues two young women, kidnapped by a barbaric Highland clan, only to find herself unjustly imprisoned by the clan she aided. Disgusted by her treatment, she counters their belated offer of friendship with anger and distrust. But she does not count on the unexpected effect the laird’s son has on her heart.

Duncan MacGregor does not understand his da’s command to imprison the young woman who saved his sister’s life. He is more than intrigued with Anna’s skill with a bow and sword—in fact, he is fascinated by everything about her, in spite of her lack of feminine wiles. Straightforward and with a deep-seated sense of honor, Anna Braxton disrupts his entire notion of a suitable woman.

Trained as a warrior and unwilling to be any man’s chattel, Anna shuns the idea of marriage—until Duncan coaxes her into a world of acceptance and passion she never knew existed. He wants her as his wife. She will agree, but only on her own terms—conditions Duncan is not sure he can accept.

Chapter 1

14th Century

Cheviot Hills, Scottish-English Border

Anna glanced over her shoulder. The two plump harts she and her brother Edrick had killed lay secured on the back of the pack horse. She smiled, waiting for Edrick’s excuses to begin anew.

“You know mine had more antler points before he stumbled down the ravine and broke a tip,” Edrick declared with a pushed tone of frustration.

“Mayhap, but the fact remains my stag has twelve to your ten.” Anna’s nonchalant answer didn’t match the merriment spilling from her eyes, or the tremors of barely contained laughter.

Edrick gave a sigh of annoyance, tempting Anna further toward laughter. They’d been having this argument ever since the ill-fated fall of his winning kill.

“Mine still outweighs yours.” His resentment was comical. Anna rolled her eyes.

“Yes, well, if that were the wager, you would be the winner. However, ’twas not.” Her curt reply gave no ground. “You have my stable chores for the next sennight, brother mine.” She burst into a sputter of giggles she could no longer restrain.

They broke from the forest at the base of a gentle hill. A column of thick black smoke billowed in the sky. The pungent odor of burning drifted to them, interrupting the delicate aroma of spring. A hasty glance at Edrick told Anna they shared the same fear. As she readied to put a heel to her horse, he hooked his reins on his saddle and drew a dagger, grabbing her reins to stop her.

“You must swear you will do nothing but fire your bow from a distance.” The fierce look in her brother’s eyes was a familiar one. Before she could answer, he cut loose his kill and turned to do the same to hers in order to leave the pack horse unburdened.

“Your word, Anna.” He sounded like a hardened warrior, bred and trained to lead.

“’Tis my home, too.” She raised her chin in defiance.

He gazed at her for a moment with a sudden softness she rarely glimpsed. “Yes, but I cannot do what needs to be done whilst I worry for your safety. You may cover my charge from a distance, but nothing more. We may already be too late. If the fight is lost, you must flee into Scotland to Grandfather. Your word.” The command in his voice mimicked their father’s so strongly, it compelled her submission.

Anna stared hard at him as the second stag slid off the pack horse. Her brother’s height of six feet two inches made him tower over many. Only four inches shorter than he, she stood head to head with all but the tallest of her father’s men. Edrick’s straight coal black hair, strong nose and chin mirrored her own, but the dark blue-eyed ancestry of the Braxton line passed to him, while Anna inherited the deep green of their mother’s clan.

“You have my word,” she conceded reluctantly.

He nodded once and kicked his horse into a gallop. Anna paused long enough to unsling her bow and hook it across her back. Then, giving her horse his head, she sped toward the smoke. Reaching the top of the hill overlooking her village and home, Anna took in the scene below. The sight stole her breath and her stomach churned with anguish.

The roof of their manor house blazed with a fire so intense, ’twas well past saving. The crackle of hungry flames reached her ears. A small group of armored men attempted to breach the gates. She recognized their armor and tactics immediately.

“Bloody English,” she spat.

Though her father’s soldiers kept the enemy at bay, the opposing numbers appeared too great.

She followed Edrick as he guided his horse to flank a small formation of archers pinning down Baron Braxton’s men, leaving them unable to ward off those trying to break through the massive wood-and-iron gate. She halted between two slender trees, sighting the archers, ready to protect her brother. Edrick kept his approach silent, riding through their back line before they could react. His sword rose and fell, cutting through the lightly armored bowmen like a sickle to ripened wheat.

He wheeled his mount to make another pass. Several archers broke formation to flee. Two archers readied to fire as Edrick charged. Prepared for such a reaction, Anna sucked in a steadying breath, then launched an arrow deep into the chest of the first man. Drawn swiftly to prevent the second archer from harming Edrick, her next arrow missed its target, penetrating the man’s hip instead of his torso. Knowing she’d fired too quickly, Anna took more time with her third shot. As the wounded archer turned, her arrow slammed into his breast, knocking him onto his back.

Edrick’s second pass through their ranks killed or scattered the rest, allowing the men atop the wall to focus on the large group manning a battering ram. He felled two more archers as they made their way toward the main body of the army. A cheer rang from the wall, her father’s men recognizing their unexpected allies.

Arrows, crossbow bolts, large stones and oil rained down with renewed fury on the attackers. Lit by torches, the enemy became screaming human bonfires, stalling their assault on the gate. The stench of burning oil and charred flesh soon joined the bitter smell of Anna’s home aflame.

A sickening roar pulled Anna’s attention from the fight. The roof of her home collapsed, flames and sparks shooting heavenward. A wall of the main keep shifted and crumbled as stone exploded under the heat of fire.

The conflagration continued to the tower where her chamber was located, a level below her father’s prized library. The terrible heartache of loss threatened to overwhelm her as the horror of death and smoke assaulted her. Anna violently shoved them aside and focused on protecting her brother.

She urged her horse forward, picking her next position amid the slain archers, and swung down to retrieve quivers of abandoned arrows. A feeling of hopelessness unlike any she’d known gripped her as she realized the odds they faced.

She turned her fear into anger, using it to shower death upon those closest to her brother. His sweeping attack from flank to flank at the rear caught the enemy unaware, and many foot soldiers fell before they could respond to the unexpected threat. Each time one turned to meet Edrick’s charge, Anna’s shaft pierced his chest, putting an abrupt end to his challenge. Another pass against the men on the ground, and Edrick pushed the enemy death toll well past a score.

Panic dug in like talons as the enemy surrounded her brother. She fired arrow after arrow, carving an opening in the noose of flesh and steel around him. Edrick’s sword cleaved death on two more, making use of the gap Anna created. He cleared the group encircling him and flashed her a smile that ended abruptly in a look of shock. He slumped forward in the saddle, a crossbow bolt protruding from the middle of his back.

“NO!”

Frozen, she watched in horror as a crush of men dragged her brother from his horse. The main gate shattered, the sound of splintering heavy oak drowning out all other noise. Soldiers swarmed the bailey of the barony’s fortified keep.

“No.” Her voice fell to a strangled whisper.

The enemy made short work of the outnumbered men inside the walls. Fixed by grief, unable to move, Anna watched as everything and everyone she loved was violently ripped away by blood, fire and steel.

The sound of horses approaching jarred her from the paralyzing terror. Twisting in the saddle, she spotted men bearing down on her. Remembering her vow to Edrick, she turned Orion and kicked once, spurring him toward the forest. She was instantly at a gallop, clumps of turf tossed high in their wake. Lying flat against her horse’s mane, she encouraged him as he lengthened his stride, ears flat against his head. Daring a backward glance, she noted the gap between them and the attackers widened, the men’s heavy armor slowing their mounts.

Anna’s knowledge of these lands, coupled with Orion’s speed, soon left her pursuers far behind. She guided the stallion north across the River Tweed, then into a copse of trees before traversing open ground toward the forest again.

She sought signs of a chase, slowing Orion to a trot as they entered the woodland. With the enemy out of sight, her only goal was to hide. Putting distance between herself and home, she traveled deeper into Scotland, darkness and the dense timberland concealing them.

“Easy, boy.” She patted Orion’s neck and he dropped to a walk. “Bloody bastards cannot keep up with us. Serves them right for wearing heavy armor and choosing steeds more fit for the plow than war.”

The horse flicked an ear in response, then willingly splashed into a swiftly moving stream swollen by the spring melt.

“No oats tonight, my boy.” Anna kept her voice low despite the noise created by the fast-moving stream. “We will search for a nice thicket under the stars. Let us hope the night remains clear and dry.” Tears streamed down her face as the reason for a night alone flashed across her mind, and she stroked his mane, drawing comfort from the warmth of his massive body.

The current washed away his hoof prints as fast as he made them. After a furlong, she turned him up a graveled bank and into deep shadows. Sliding from his back, she unsaddled him, setting her unsheathed swords close by on the ground for quick access.

She settled in for what rest to be found before dawn, but slumber did not come easy. Edrick’s death played over and over again, tormenting her dreams, leaving her more exhausted than restored. Finally giving up, she rose, dawn scarcely a hint in the sky. She wasted no time breaking camp, looking and listening for any sign of pursuers. Satisfied none were about, she mounted and continued deeper into the forest, unsure of her destination.

* * *

Anna picked her way through forests and fields, avoiding civilization, questions tormenting her without cease.

Whom did they serve?
Had a neighboring lord attacked?
With no visible standard, no heraldic device, how could she be sure?
Who is friend? And who is foe?

Which led to another important question—where would she go? Returning to England was out of the question. Anywhere she appeared, she could unwittingly put herself in the hands of unknown enemies. Though she had promised Edrick, she couldn’t go to her grandfather’s clan for fear of bringing her father’s enemies to his doorstep.

With both her brother and father dead, she was now her father’s heir. She would be declared a ward of King Edward and forced into marriage if she returned—and could not live with such a fate. She squinted her eyes at the sky, weighing her options. Her only path lay north—into the Highlands.

One day bled into the next, and then another. Having never traveled this far into Scotland, Anna had only the slimmest idea of her location. The terrible loss of her home and family continually gnawed her heart, but she had no time to indulge grief. For now, stealth and survival were her priorities.

* * *

Feminine screams pierced her thoughts, causing her to put Orion to flight. At the edge of a large glen, six men held two young women. One fought, kicking at the man holding her until he threw her down, tearing her dress. Sounds of nearby battle reached her ears.
A raiding party?

Anna clenched her jaw.
Cursed barbarians, stealing women
. After days of unfulfilled vengeance eating away at her, here was an injustice she could throw herself into.

Leaving Orion in the trees, Anna drew her bow and crept closer to the party. The woman with the torn dress lay on the ground. The men surrounding her laughed and held the other woman roughly until she ceased to struggle. Anna moved nearer for a better look. The two were barely more than girls. A cold rage swept through her.

BOOK: Highland Escape
6.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Just Add Heat by Genevieve Jourdin
An Affair Downstairs by Sherri Browning
Magic in Ithkar by Andre Norton, Robert Adams (ed.)
Taking Chances by Frances, Deanna
Intentional Dissonance by pleasefindthis, Thomas, Iain S.
Wishing on Buttercups by Miralee Ferrell
Sweetest Taboo by Eva Márquez
Colorful Death by S. Y. Robins
Reflections in the Nile by Suzanne Frank