Authors: April Holthaus
“Ian, we need to find food. I’m hungrier than a wolf,” Leland announced, not lifting his eyes from Keira.
“Aye. I will join ye,” Ian replied. Turning around, he faced Keira. “I need fer ye to stay put. Ye will be safe here.”
“Yer leaving?” she nervously asked.
“Aye, but I will no’ be gone long. Promise me ye will stay!”
Keira nodded her head. After strapping his sword to his side, Ian pulled out a small dagger from his bag and slipped it inside a sheath that hung off his belt and grabbed the reins of the horse, leading the animal into the woods. Keira watched all three men quietly walk deeper into the woods until the trees seemed to close behind them.
Looking around the surrounding area, Keira took notice of the moss-covered rocks embedded into the hard sandstone. The arch of the overhang, and the way the earth had been naturally carved out beneath it reminded her of a magic doorway. It was like the ones she described in the stories she read to her youngest sister, Abby. Only five summers, Abby loved when Keira told her tales of fairies and mystical creatures. Now she had new stories to tell; ones about giant warriors, thieves, bandits and damsels in distress.
Though this was far from what she would call an adventure, the past two days had been the most extraordinary, yet scary, she had ever experienced.
Ian watched as the leaves on the bush began to rustle. Stealthily, he drew his dagger out of its sheath, firmly gripping the handle. Like a hawk, he watched his prey. Through the leaves, he could see the fine grey fur on its face as it hid in the branches. Only a twitch of its nose, and a twitch of its ears gave away its location as Ian took a step closer. The small animal buried its back paws into the earth, hunched down readying itself to flee. Now was Ian’s chance.
Like a bird of prey, he swooped down, capturing the frightened hare, which began wriggling violently in Ian’s hands. Ian took his dagger and swiftly ended the poor creature’s life.
One rabbit did not offer much meat but would at least make a small meal for the four of them. He only hoped Leland and Rylan had been more successful. He had sent Rylan on a mission to find a nearby creek or stream to fill their sporrans with water, and sent Leland out to gather more food. Between the three of them they should be able to gather enough game for the rest of the evening and the next morning.
As the blood drained from the hare, Ian wrapped a leather strap around its hind legs and strung it to his horse’s saddle strap.
Clouds waltzed across the sky, chasing the storm away. The rain lightened to just a few sprinkles before stopping completely. Opening his leather satchel, Ian pulled out a fresh, clean tunic and trews. He disrobed and donned the dry clothing, then using his plaid; he wiped the raindrops from his saddle. Placing his wet garb over the back of the horse to dry, he mounted and made his way back to where he left Keira near the cliff, believing Rylan and Leland were not too far behind.
Keira sat on a rock and waited, resting her head on her hands. The rain had stopped and there was still no sign of Ian and his men. Her stomach ached with hunger, whenever she thought of the food Ian was gathering. She wished there was something she could do to help. She hated being waited on, and she did not want them to feel that they needed to care for her as if she were a child.
Scanning the forest, she spotted several moss-covered oaks trees. At their base, an abundance of wild mushrooms were sticking out of the ground. Unraveling the plaid she held around her shoulders, she stood and headed over to where she saw the mushrooms.
These would make a lovely meal
, she thought.
One by one, Keira picked a handful of the fungi. As she walked around the trunks of the trees, she spotted several other herbs such as parsley, thyme and wild ramson. Though the smell of the ramson was a bit potent, its onion-garlic taste was quite pleasing when served in a stew.
Celia, the healer at Castle Sinclair, had taught Keira many great things. One of those, of course, was how to identify different herbs and the purpose of each. Her cooking skills, however, she’d learned from Brenna, the castle cook.
Holding the skirt of her dress to form a sort of bowl, she placed her findings into its fold. There was a small part of her that hoped Ian and his men would be pleased. She no longer wanted them to view her as a burden. Leland and Rylan were obviously of that opinion, anyway. Ian was different. He was patient and at least showed her a small measure of kindness.
Once her skirt was full, Keira started to head back to the shelter, when she heard footsteps behind her. Relief that Ian was returning eased her tension and melted away her fear and worry, but as Keira turned it was not Ian who stood in front of her.
Keira swallowed. Dressed in a black tunic, blue and green tartan and a broad sword strapped to his side, the man was definitely not one of Ian’s men. It was his colors that gave him away. He was a Munro. She would have recognized that plaid anywhere. It was one of the few clan colors she was remotely familiar with. She hadn’t even realized they were on Munro land.
The Munros and Sinclairs were allies. This knowledge brought relief. She could ask him to take her to her father and she could escape Ian and his men.
“Ye startled me,” she said, dumping the contents from her skirt into a pile onto the ground. “Thank God ye arrived when ye did. I am Lady Keira Sinclair, daughter of Laird Magnus Sinclair. I have been held against my will and I wish to leave this place at once.”
The Munro warrior narrowed his eyes as he scanned the trees looking for her assailants. But he stood and said nothing. Surely, he would want to make haste.
“I dinna think ye understand. My captors will return soon. Tis best we leave at once! My father is a good friend of yer Laird. I am certain ye will be compensated for my rescue.”
The man turned toward her, one brow raised at the mention of a reward. Puzzled by his silence, Keira felt uneasy and his reaction made her wary of him. Had she said too much? Was he going to help her? Her gazed locked on his.
Licking his dry, parched lips, his eyes lowered, and he looked at her intensely as if he was trying to take her all in. His gaze made her uncomfortable. It took only moments for alarms to go off in her head like church bells. Cold sweat caused a chill down her spine, and hairs stood straight up from the goosebumps on her arms. Keira took an apprehensive step back causing him to mimic her movement, but he took a step toward her, maintaining the distance between them.
“I dinna think we will be going anywhere, lassie,” he said, a taunt in his deep voice.
With sly movements, he unsheathed his sword, laid it upon the ground and began unlatching his belt from around his waist. The moment it dropped to the ground, Keira pivoted and ran in a sprint, but it wasn’t fast enough. She felt a tight squeeze on her arm as the man grabbed her, tossing her to the ground. Keira screamed out for help but was rendered helpless as he climbed on top of her and covered her mouth with his hand. With his other hand, he lifted her skirt and began unlacing his trews.
Keira fought underneath him like a cat that’d been thrown into a watering trough, as he pressed his hard shaft against her thigh. Bile rose in her throat. Continuing to wrestle, she fought with every bit of strength she could muster.
“Get off her,” Ian roared, his voice resonating around her.
Ian lunged. The two men rolled on the ground, fists swinging. Kicking Ian hard in the gut, the Munro warrior regained his balance, stood and ran for his sword. Ian pulled himself to his knees. Unsheathing his own sword, he raised to his feet. His blade collided with his opponent’s as they swung their weapons, each man grunting at the force of the impact. Raising his sword up high, Ian’s blade sliced through the air making contact with the man’s right arm, disarming him. Hitting what Ian felt must have been bone; he pulled the blade back toward him, opening a deep gash in the man’s flesh. Blood seeped through the Munro’s linen shirt until his sleeve was soaked in bright red blood. But the wound Ian inflicted was not meant to kill him; only render the other man useless.
From a distance, Keira had seen her clansmen battle while on the training fields, but it was nothing compared to watching a real battle play out before her eyes. The anger, the blood, and the murderous atmosphere stimulated every nerve in her body, making her tremble. Panic began to set in. Ian was going to kill him, she was certain of it. She had never seen death before. Not even when her own mother died.
Her eyes were fixed on Ian. He was a born swordsman, and must have spent countless hours honing his skill. He held his claymore above his head with ease as if it weighed no more than a feather. Keira found herself concerned for his welfare, though she knew he was capable. Ian, she imagined, could take on an army, much less just one Munro warrior. But still, the thought of Ian getting hurt caused her chest to tighten and heart to ache.
The moment Ian saw the man assaulting Keira, fury raced through him like a bolt of lightning. As they fought, Ian gripped his sword tighter, ready to end this man’s life. The warrior lifted his left hand and instinctively covered the wound Ian had inflicted. His reaction gave Ian an open strike. With full force, Ian rammed his sword into the man’s shoulder. He howled in pain. To Ian it was the satisfying shriek of victory.
With his boot, Ian pushed him to the ground, removing his blade from the man’s shoulder. As Munro lay helpless, Ian pressed his blade to the man’s throat. He wanted to seize this moment, to relish it, and rid the world of the bloody bastard for assaulting Keira.
Everything around Ian went black as his eyes focused on the pulsating vein, visible on the warrior’s throat. Even the noises around him faded, except for the beat of his own pounding heart. Today, there would be one less despicable bastard walking the earth.
As Ian leaned forward, the tender touch of a soft hand along his forearm brought him back to the present. Angrily, he looked down at the lass, but his anger dissipated at the sight of her mortified expression. In the downward cast of her eyes, he could see her compassion and understanding but there was fear there he had never witnessed, and the forlorn expression on her face was as depressing as afternoon rain.
Ian had become so hardened over the years after giving his life to king and country, he’d rid himself of compassion. But this man did not deserve leniency after what he had almost done.
“Ian, don’t,” she said softly.
Ian kept his blade firm.
“Please, Ian. Let him go. Ye have done enough damage. There is no need to kill him.”
Keira spoke in hushed tones; her voice as soft and sweet as an angel’s harp. Ian loosened the grip on the hilt of his sword. Of all the moments in Ian’s life, this one was the most significant. It would be the moment he would rise from the ashes.
“Get up,” Ian growled, in a deep, threatening tone.
The man struggled to rise. Holding his shoulder to prevent from bleeding out, he stood.
“Fate must be on yer side, as I will no’ shed more of yer blood,
!” Ian growled.
Letting the man go was the last thing he wanted but he imagined the man would not last long. The amount of blood he had lost was more than a man could survive. He would probably pass out in the woods and bleed to death. That at least offered Ian some satisfaction.
Keira sat quietly near the fire as Rylan and Leland began cooking the rabbit, with the herbs and mushrooms she had found, in a large pot. The thought of food now, however, was nauseating. She used to pride herself on being a good judge of character, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Even worse, Ian was completely ignoring her and she did not know why. Bothered by his misplaced anger, she kept to herself.
“Did the mon say anything to ye?” Leland asked as he stirred the pot of food.
She could see pity in his eyes as he gauged her reaction. Saying “no” was all she could respond. The man had no intentions of engaging in conversation with her. When her father learned of what had almost happened, he would demand retribution from Laird Munro. Had it not been for Ian, he would have…would have… Keira broke down in tears.
Burying her face in her hands, she wept. The two men seated with her around the fire offered no comment, allowing her to cry. She at least deserved that! Leland nudged her shoulder. When she raised her head up, he held a bowl of stew out to her.
“Here ye go, lassie. It may taste terrible but I did no’ claim to be a cook,” he said.
Wiping her tears, she thanked him and cupped her hand around the bowl. She took a small sip, and the hot liquid burnt the tip of her tongue. The taste was bland and could use salt but wasn’t as terrible as Leland suggested.
Leland sat down next to her to eat his own meal. Trying to make small talk, he spoke of the weather. He seemed nervous as he spoke. She could not imagine that a mighty Highland Warrior like him could be shy. Was he attempting to distract her or was there something else that he was not telling her?
“I have no’ spoken to Ian for some time. Do ye think he is alright? Did he get hurt in battle?” she asked, genuinely concerned.
“Dinna worry about my brother lass. When he thinks, he likes to no’ be bothered.”
“Is that what I am? A bother?”
“I was no’ referring to ye lass. I was referring to…”
“LELAND,” Ian barked out as he returned to the group.
Leland jolted upright.
“Dinna ye know no’ to startle a mon like that?” Leland exclaimed.
“Tend to the horses. We are leaving. I want to get a good distance away in case we encounter other men lurking through these woods,” Ian ordered. “Rylan, we leave fer MacKenzie’s.”
“MacKenzie’s? Why the hell are we stopping there? What of Linlithgow, where Laird Gudeman awaits our report?” Rylan asked.
Keira looked at each man as they spoke. At the mention of Laird Gudeman, Rylan’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Whoever this Laird Gudeman was, Keira hoped their paths would cross. She wished to give him a piece of her mind. Perhaps if their laird knew how his men behaved they would think twice about their transgressions the next time they decided to kidnap a lass.
“I wish to seek safe shelter for Lady Sinclair until she can be reunited wit’ her family. I will have MacKenzie send a message about our delay. Tis only a half day’s ride from here. If we leave now, we should make it before that bastard opens his next bottle of whiskey.”
“MacKenzie? How can I trust that I will be safe there? Will he send word to my father? I refuse to go if yer plans are to dump me there and leave,” Keira protested.